The Grit with Grace series in Kalispell introduces women to new and challenging experiences.
Brenda Westwood and her horses provide unique insight to the human condition
By David Reese/Montana Health Journal
At just over 1,000 pounds, Starry can seem a bit intimidating. But don’t let his long face and sweeping tail scare you; Starry, a quarter-horse gelding, is gentle as a lamb.
He takes easily to people, and will sometimes nudge you with his long snout. It’s what Starry does that helps Brenda Westwood open a conversation about yourself. With a partner in Starry, the woman and the horse work together to open conversations with people in the safe, nurturing environment of a horse arena.
Westwood describes this as “equine gestalt therapy,” and the practice can be a useful component to someone's personal exploration of self.
“No one is broken,” Westwood said in an interview at her arena near Kalispell. “The answers lie within us, and the horses bring something to the surface that might be buried, whether it was yesterday, or from our childhood, that is not serving us well. We all have stories. Some are great; some are not so great. The horses and I uncover that, so you can leave it in the dirt. Gestalt helps people finish their business.”
At a session last summer, Westwood and about five people sat in chairs in a circle on the dirt floor of the horse arena. Westwood opened a conversation with the people, who responded in varying degrees of openness. Some wanted to talk; others were reluctant. Then, Westwood had each of the people enter the ring with Starry, the big, friendly horse. The people walked next to Starry, while Westwood remained outside the arena. Westwood asked questions of the people as they walked through the dirt along with the horse. She watched how Starry responded to the people, and she listened to the peoples' answers.
The clinics are not horsemanship, nor are they clinical therapy. This is equine-assisted learning. The horses react to how we hold our energy, and Westwood works to interpret these reactions and create a dialogue about them with the client.
“The horses are a coach, and I'm a coach,” Westwood said. “They guide a lot of the session.” Sessions last 60 to 90 minutes. Some clients attend her sessions with their own therapist.
Westwood opened her equine program in 2012 after researching her goals in life. Asked to do a paper for a class at Flathead Valley Community College on her ideal life, Westwood designed this career path. “The things I love spoke to me, and those were horses and nature,” she said. “I wanted to do emotional and spiritual work, and this has been my dream.”
She completed a two-year certification program through “Touched by a Horse.”
Westwood also puts on sessions called “Grit with Grace.” These are how-to workshops — one hour a week for six weeks — designed to teach people about household tasks or farm work, such as how to run a chainsaw, fix a sink or change a tire.
The workshops help people learn resilience and self-reliance, she said. She runs the Grit workshops along with a Gestalt session with the horses in the arena.
“I want to help people find their inspiration and confidence to go forward,” Westwood said. “I try to help people get connected to who they are, not who other people or society say they are.”
During a session with one person, Starry moved in close to give the woman a nudge with his big, long muzzle. Starry was recognizing how the woman was speaking her truth. “He's very good at this work,” Westwood said. “He's like an equine truth detector.” •