AUSTIN (KXAN) - There's a new hot spa treatment in town and it's not just about relaxation. It's called "equine experience" and helps individuals learn more about themselves by bonding with horses.
An increasing number of spas across the country offer the program, and Austin's own Travaasa is one of them.
Horse therapy has long been a part of drug habilitation and mental health care in the U.S., but Travaasa's equine manager Keith Moon doesn't consider their program a form of therapy.
"We're not therapists," Moon said. "We're really not looking to fix somebody, but just try to give them an experience that allows them to see how the horse reacts when you're in touch with your emotions."
Moon explains that participants do not ride the horses but instead spend time with them inside a round pen, as they learn how their body language and demeanor affects whether the horse will follow their cues, or not. Horses, he says, are very intuitive and have the ability to sense energy and body language in both humans and other horses.
"They're prey animals and it makes sense that a horse can pick up on those details and determine whether he's safe or needs to flee," Moon said.
A participant first spends time with the horse outside of the horse pen -- brushing and petting its shoulders. This part of the process is about establishing a connection with the horse, but it's also a relaxing experience for both.
"[A guest spends time] just being in the present and being with the horse. You can see the horse relax and feel yourself let go as well," Moon explained.
Before a guest goes inside the round pen, one of the resort's cowboys – or cowgirl – gives him or her a demonstration of what's to come: the person stands in the center of the pen, takes a deep breath and uses both body language and a whip to give the horse simple instructions such as "walk," "run" or "turn."
Journalist Reinout van Wagtendonk – who participated in the program – says he thought it would be easy to pull off.
"I raised two kids and two dogs," he said. "But when we got into the ring, my horse just took off running -- running at high speed on the outside of the ring. I stood there, not knowing what was going on, what I was supposed to do to slow down this horse."
Van Wagtendonk said he learned that his own state of mind influenced the horse's behavior.
"They told us that the horses would be very keenly aware of you in the ring, your body language and your energy. So I thought, well, that's my energy running around there, I may look calm from the outside but on the inside it's obviously a different story," he said.
Moon explained that horses can be like mirrors and they show people exactly what's going on inside of them.
"You can't fool a horse," he said. "If you're insecure, frustrated or angry, the horse will know and immediately react to that."
He said it's about getting past these emotions and showing the horse that you're in control.
"The animal then understands that we represent safety and leadership. We gain their respect," Moon explained.
The last step of the process is called the "join up" and this is where the whole experience comes full circle. It's at the point where the horse has accepted the participant as a leader and follows him or her around the ring, without having to give verbal cues.
Van Wagtendonk remembers this moment vividly. "It was actually very emotional. I felt it deeply as an accomplishment but also just as something awesome. How awesome nature is."
Moon explained there is a valuable lesson in working with horses, if a person is open to it.
"They're pretty good teachers, if we're willing to be good students."
But, he says, some people just want to have a good time.
"They just want to come out here and spend the day with a horse, and that's fine too," Moon said.
Travaasa Austin is located at 13500 Farm to Market Rd 2769.
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