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Steamboat Magazine

Equine-Assisted Grief Therapy: Healing with Horses at Humble Ranch

08/25/2021 11:59AM ● By Marion Kahn

Doc, an independent horse, poses for a moment in the Humble Ranch fields. Doc was Marion's reluctant, then abiding, healing partner for the sessions. 

By Marion Kahn
Photography courtesy Humble Ranch

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – I’m not a horse whisperer, but I have a new understanding of horses and their internal power.

It began with Dr. Jo Anne Grace’s gentle voice inviting me to participate in a two-day equine-assisted grief therapy program. She knew that I had tragically lost my 37-year-old daughter nearly a year earlier. Before Annie’s death, I would have thought grief would be over by then, but I learned that healing is a long-term process with no absolute end.

As spiritual and bereavement coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health Hospice, Jo Anne counseled me on grief.

I knew nothing about equine-assisted therapy. I rode horses as a child, but never felt the special connection that some people do.

In 1999 Cheri Trousil’s family acquired Humble Ranch as a family home. Their vision, she says, was to “preserve the land and the agricultural heritage while embracing the healing power of nature.” In 2018 Cheri approached Jo Anne about partnering with Hospice on grief care issues.

A rainbow brightens the Yampa Valley sky above Humble Ranch.


Jo Anne and Cheri created a workshop and obtained grant funds to support it. The workshop was well led and creative. Incorporating qigong, meditation, bodywork and delicious lunches, the leaders facilitated participants’ growth, primarily by bonding with a large animal, an internal process. Beth Godbey, LPC and head of erquine empowerment, joined with Jo Anne and Cheri to guide three other women and me through the workshop.

After a guided meditation, we went into a large outdoor ring and were told to pick a horse or let a horse pick us. We walked around the horses. The horses walked around us. Some felt they had bonded with a horse only to have that horse walk away.

Others really seemed to want “my” horses, so I waited and took the one that was left. He was a big, red-coated fella named Doc. He was aloof, tolerating attention.

I rubbed his back, patted his face, scratched behind his ears. He was patient but not warm. He snorted. I jumped. If horses could laugh, I think he would have.

We led our horses into the barn to work them individually in a small ring. They were to follow us. We were not to talk to them, touch them, or look them in the face. We could look at their hind legs. We could silently communicate with them. We could clap our hands or slap our thighs to establish a rhythm as we walked in a circle. The rest had to happen with non-verbal communication.

We were to inspire a horse to follow us, without verbal commands or visual cues. They told us this requires openness.

“Horses are receptive to people when they are present, calm and directive,” Grace said. “This a great way for participants to learn the principles of non-verbal communication that are directly transferable to one’s emotions and human interactions.”

The others went first. Each was able to get her chosen horse to follow, some quickly, some not, igniting self-doubt and vulnerability. Then it was my turn.

I went to Doc with an open heart. I walked around him so that he would know I was there. Nothing. Slowly, I walked around the ring several times. Nothing. I walked and clapped.Nothing. I walked and slapped my thighs. Nothing.

I stopped, my back to Doc. I felt peaceful, even though he hadn’t responded. There was a long pause. And then Doc took a few steps toward me. I walked around the ring again, establishing a rhythm by slapping my thighs. He began to follow me. Beth had tears in her eyes. Doc, she would tell me later, “won’t follow people.”

Doc nudges Marion Kahn's arm to continue the relationship they built during the two-day equine-assisted therapy grief workshop.


Doc and I had had a breakthrough. From then on, Doc walked to me, wherever I was, sticking his nose under my arm. We’d bonded, though I still jumped each time he snorted from the dust.

I learned that part of getting a horse to follow you is keeping your head up. Grieving people tend to look down. It’s also about being loving to the horse and yourself – something that is often lost in grief.

“It is hoped that participants will experience the healing power of horses,” Grace said. In my case, her hope was well-founded. I was reminded that the small can usually conquer the big, if we allow it.

These workshops are offered on a yearly basis during the summer and fall. They are limited to four participants and available through Northwest Colorado Health’s Hospice Program. Hospice families are given preference. For more information, please contact Dr. Jo Anne Grace at 970-846-8319 or by email at [email protected].

Marion Kahn is an artist and writer who lives in Steamboat Springs.