In 2001, following her recent divorce, Sara Willerson’s father gave her a book titled The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. It chronicles the author’s extensive experiences as a woman relating to horses, including visitations by their ghostly spirits. Kohanov’s story may strike some as far-fetched, but Willerson was profoundly affected by the account. Page after page resonated with memories of Willerson’s first horse, Pooh, who lived with her for over 20 years.
Willerson credits the book with revealing her true calling – now a licensed clinical social worker who incorporates horses in her practice. “It was like I experienced this download,” she said. “I realized what I was supposed to do when I grow up.”
Willerson wound up studying at Kohanov’s Epona Center in Tucson, returning to Texas in 2003 to set up a practice in which she uses her four horses as a buffer, a conduit and a mirror in order to promote growth in her clients. She conducts her sessions outdoors here, on a few acres of land 20 miles northeast of Denton.
Willerson also offers therapy to hospital patients using Spirit, her Shetland pony, whose size makes him easily transportable. After passing behavioral tests to determine if Spirit could handle a hospital environment, he started work at the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Baylor Hospital in Dallas.
Willerson said that Spirit knew exactly what to do. Despite initial uncertainty on the part of some patients, their energy changed rapidly under he pony’s influence. “You could see their whole body relax,” she said. “He put his head in their arms, and really understood where they were coming from in their healing process.”
At Willerson’s property, the horses step in to help clients access what may be buried so deep inside they cannot find it alone. Willerson first checks with the client to determine what he or she is feeling. When she judges the time is right, therapist and client wander into the general presence of the horses — Spirit, Magno, Moonbeam and Jingles– to see what the interaction can induce. Willerson stays there to ensure that the session stays focused.
Asked how frequently the client experiences progress, Willerson asserted, “It happens every single session.”
Some might perceive the process as New Age nonsense, and Willerson finds it difficult to articulate what she says is “so incredibly experiential” about the sessions between the horse and client. Nonetheless some of the encounters seem to speak for themselves.
Andrea Durant, a Willerson client, had been in a state of depression and anxiety when her grandfather’s suicide in 2005 sent her into a downward spiral. Willerson describes what she says was her horses’ ability to locate where Durant physically held her stress and nudged that exact spot with their heads. “No matter where you are or what you try to hide, the horses know,” Durant said.
In Willerson’s view, horses provide humans a balancing force to counter the sensory onslaught that accompanies our current technological dependence.
“Their purpose is to help us as humans clear out everything around us, within us, beyond us that keeps us from being the absolute essence of our sole purpose here,” she said. “They are coming from an absolute total place of pure love and expansion and being, and that’s what they see in us, that possibility.”
Willerson has a warm, frank candor and casual cowgirl style, and no one would consider her a flower child. But she sounds like one when she describes horses as “magical beings” that were put on this earth for a reason.
“They use their entire being,” she said. “They use their emotional self, their spiritual self, their physical self and their mental self. It’s like the wind flowing through them; they pick up on everything. They live from their heart and their soul, and that’s what they want us to do.”