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Equine-Assisted Shadow Work®

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Feb. 18, 2014, by Chrissy McFarren

Equine-Assisted Shadow Work
      Chrissy McFarren at home in West Virginia, with Jesse

"Believe in your dreams, even when you can't see the way." This motto (and potential bumper-sticker) sums up my journey of finding a way to bring my two passions together: Shadow Work® and equine-assisted healing.

Since I was a young girl I have shared my life with horses. I've ridden and shown horses, and I worked at prestigious Virginia race horse farms starting two-year-old thoroughbreds. I've trained horses and taught riding lessons, and I've raised and cared for horses for decades.

I can't imagine my life without horses. I owe my own sanity and emotional growth to my years of working with them, knowing them and understanding them. I totally identify with horses.

Horses are highly sensitive, sentient beings who are prey animals and owe their survival to their highly tuned senses and ability to read body language and energy. Over the years of working with them I learned their language and it made sense to me.

As an adult woman, I went through an intensely traumatic survival situation with my first husband and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). While I had years of therapy, I truly believe it was the horses that helped me not only heal but learn how to work with my PTSD and to learn from it. I honed my skills in working with trauma in horses and humans while continuing to learn myself.

In 2006 my husband Dave and I became certified as Shadow Work® group facilitators. Since then we have enjoyed leading Shadow Work® weekends here at our farm in Summit Point, West Virginia, a little over an hour west of Washington, DC.



During this time I continued to teach riding lessons and was also being asked to work with people's horses on their farms. The horse owners were usually asking me to come work with their "problem horse." Inevitably, these sessions would turn into coaching for the horse owners themselves, and they were (usually) open enough to see that the horse wasn't the one with the problem. The horse was simply reacting to some unresolved problem or issue of the owner's.

Before I stopped giving riding lessons, the universe sent me clients who were dealing with trauma, and we ended up working on body/energy regulation. I'm so grateful for those students because working with them helped guide me on the path of my own journey.

I discovered there were certification programs in this world of equine-assisted learning (EAL) and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), so I began taking trainings, and in 2009 I was certified as an equine specialist. The program I was certified in called for a facilitation team made up of two people (an equine specialist and a mental health practitioner) and at least one horse. I approached a friend who is a therapist, and we began seeing clients here at the farm using the horses I already owned. In 2011 we started a non-profit, Full Circle Farm Growth and Healing Center, which offers EAL and EAP for children, teens, adults, groups and veterans. In the past four years I have been blessed to witness the same type of magic I have witnessed in Shadow Work® processes, but now in a round pen working with horses.



Equine-assisted work is experiential and offers in-the-moment learning. Horses are naturals at this work because, as prey animals, they see humans as potential predators. Yes, that's right, even a huge, one-thousand-pound stallion can see us as predators, while at the same time we might wonder how we will survive an encounter with a creature with so much raw energy and strength.

Because of this natural predator/prey dynamic, horses are really good at reading us, our body language, and our energy, and they react to it. So therapeutically, horses offer feedback to a person that is based purely on how that person interacts with the horse, and not tainted by judgment, history, or expectation, as human feedback often is.

During this time I also started seeing the possibilities for Equine-Assisted Shadow Work® (EASW). I was already using some of my Shadow Work® skills and theories in the arena with the client and horse. In order to see what EASW could look like, I first had to let go of what Shadow Work® looks like on a seminar weekend. Once I let go of the idea of fitting existing Shadow Work® processes into equine work, the vision got clear and simple.



The key lies in the fact that the foundation of a traditional Shadow Work® process is Magician energy, whereas EASW is based more in Lover and Warrior energies. In a traditional process we create a ritual container and symbolically represent the participant's shadow dynamics using role players. We then give the participant the opportunity to access their "inner Magician" to gain new perspectives and then try a "new way" of doing things.

In EASW the participant is not in a ritual container. When they step into the round pen they're in a real container with another real being, and their shadows immediately start to show up as thoughts and body energy, which the horse naturally reacts to, giving the participant real-time feedback.

In a traditional process the "anchoring" of the new energy in the body usually doesn't happen until the end of the process and is often symbolic. In EASW the "real-ness" of the container means the anchoring starts right away and is often felt more intensely by the participant and has a more lasting effect.

Equine-Assisted Shadow Work
Celebratory finish to a round-pen session at the women’s retreat at Laramie River Ranch

As a Shadow Work® facilitator I see a huge positive potential for working in this Warrior/Lover model. I'm not saying EASW is better than traditional Shadow Work® I just see it as another option for healing, especially for folks who have a hard time retaining the learning/growth they got from a traditional Shadow Work® process.



Last fall, I had a wonderful opportunity to test my new theories and methods of EASW with a group of women at a retreat I was co-facilitating with two other women who are the board of our non-profit.

The retreat was held at Laramie River Ranch, which is located in northern Colorado near the Wyoming border. Each day of the retreat the women had an opportunity to be in the energy of one of the archetypes as it showed up in the relationship with the horse they were partnered with for the four-day/five-night retreat.

As we do in Shadow Work®, we spent our last day in the blessing energy of the Sovereign, the place of positivity. In our final round-pen experience, we witnessed each woman claim her new authentic self while she was led bareback on her horse. Through the rhythm of the horse's gait, connected to her body, she felt the authentic truth of moving in a new way. When all the women completed their processes we went on a celebratory trail ride up through the canyons, singing all the way! I will never forget that feeling of joy and thinking, "This is the work I was destined for."

And, as if to verify that thought, I looked up to see that a bald eagle was flying with us and she screamed out her celebratory song along with all of us!

To find out more about the equine retreats and workshops we offer, including the next retreat at Laramie River Ranch, visit the Full Circle Farm Growth and Healing website.


Chrissy McFarren is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator in Coaldale, Colorado. Read more about Chrissy.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in February 2014. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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