And the Horse Will Play Your Grandmother: My Day of Equine Family Therapy

Can you heal people by getting them to act out their feelings in front of a bunch of animals and strangers? Sara Fancy thinks so.

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Oct 20 2014, 4:00am

Sara Fancy and her horses. All photos by the author

“Will you be my father?” Connie asks with the twisting posture of a nervous child. We just met half an hour ago. She’s old enough to be my mother.

“I’d be honored,” I reply.

She places her hands gently on my shoulders. “This is my father,” she affirms, smiling sweetly.

Connie hasn’t spoken to the real man in 20 years, making this a tricky role to play. Rounding out the family is a Jack Russell Terrier named Jack (her daughter), a chestnut mare named Jackie (her grandmother), and a few other human strangers in various roles.

The matriarch of our little clan is Sara Fancy—a former competitive bodybuilder and ex–punk rocker who developed a love for horses in midlife. She was particularly fascinated by the animals’ apparent intuition, their ability to read and respond to human emotional cues. This sensitivity, she believed, could be harnessed for therapeutic purposes. Building on the work of psychoanalyst Bert Hellinger, Fancy bought several of the animals and a desolate plot of land in Southern California. She erected stables and a yurt, and named her new homestead the Silver Horse Healing Ranch. I drove down from LA this summer to experience Fancy’s horse therapy firsthand.

The cars arrived in clouds of dust stirred up from the dirt road. We all met one another inside Sara’s kitchen. There was Connie, a longtime Silver Horse client, and her friend Kay, who was there for support. After them came Christopher Rutgers and his wife Stephanie. Like many visitors to the ranch, Christopher had been referred here by a traditional therapist.

“We also get a lot of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts from the clinics,” Sara added in her cheerful British lilt.

After several cups of tea and slices of watermelon, we strolled to the stables under a blazing blue sky. A horse named Pretty Boy sauntered to the edge of the corral, pushing his cheek into Sara’s hand. “Pretty Boy’s owner was going to shoot him in the head and throw him in a landfill,” she explained, rubbing his muzzle. “Luckily, the man called me first and asked if I wanted him. I can’t use Pretty Boy with clients because he’s a little mousy, but I took him anyway. Ironically enough, some time later Pretty Boy’s owner ended up shooting himself in the head.”

All the horses at the ranch are rescues. “Have you heard of the drug Premarin?” Sara asked. “It’s a hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women like me and Connie. It stops you from growing a beard and makes you feel young and virile again. Premarin stands for ‘pregnant mare urine’ because that’s where they get it from. They keep the horses in these tiny spaces indoors under artificial lighting with bags to collect their urine. They give them as little water as possible to keep the urine concentrated. Anyway, in 2003, scientists discovered that Premarin can give you breast cancer, so a lot of these places closed down. There were suddenly 30,000 pregnant mares on the rescue circuit. I took as many as I could.”

Sara gestured to a mare whose ears had perked up. “She likes it when I talk about this stuff. You want people to know—right, Jackie?”

Sara and her horse Silver

We joined Sara on blankets in the shade of a tent. “I’ll give you some background,” she began. “What we do here is a version of Family Constellation Therapy. The premise is that whatever issues you’re having, they could be related to an ancestor. It’s not just immediate family. You can go back generations and generations. We’re looking at what didn’t get resolved back there. The dead need resolution too.”

She talked next about Hellinger. He had been a German solider during World War II before becoming a Catholic priest. His religious work brought him to South Africa where he lived for years with Zulu tribesmen, and he borrowed heavily from their practices in his later career as a psychoanalyst.

“Indigenous cultures all do the kind of work we do here,” Sara claimed, “but maybe slightly differently. There’s one tribe where they take you to a place, and they say that the mountain is your father and the tree is your mother. They use nature as representations of your family.”

In Hellinger’s version of Constellation Therapy, human volunteers rely on intuition to embody a client’s relatives, whom the volunteers have never met and know little about. Their interactions with one another are believed to be influenced by those absent individuals, allowing them to resolve their issues through enactments.

“Some of Hellinger’s first patients were Holocaust survivors and perpetrators,” Sara said. “If you’re Jewish, and you have ancestors who died in the Holocaust, the Nazis who killed them become part of your family system—and vice versa. It’s the same with slave-owning ancestors here in America. There was a woman who had slave owners in her ancestry, and she had a strong desire to be an activist. She wanted to help unprivileged black kids, but it always backfired. She was continually being attacked by them.

“One great thing about using horses,” Sara continued, “is that they’re super hyperaware of all of those connections because they’re prey animals. We are predators to them.”

The ability of horses to read the humans around them is well documented. A prime example is the famous German horse Clever Hans. Around the turn of the 20th century, Clever Hans toured Europe to great acclaim, performing arithmetic. People would pose math problems to the horse and he would stomp his foot to indicate the answer. It took a psychologist months of careful study to discover that the horse was simply reading and responding to the expectations of the crowd—he would stomp his foot until he sensed from the people around him that he had reached the correct number.

Sara thinks this ability can be put to better use than creating an equine sideshow. “If the horse thinks that this person needs to get together with that person, they will nudge you together. Or if you need to be apart they will nudge you away,” she said. “Horses are continually looking for balance. They’re able to tap into the energy field to find out information. Take this hat, for example: There’s information in the field about who designed it, who wore it, and the workers that made it.”

After the briefing, Connie assigned us all a role, and we headed to the corral. We didn’t know much about her history, just that she hadn’t spoken to either of her parents in many years. Her goal was to have a better life in every way. Sara brought out Jackie, the mare we had met earlier, and the session began.

“Feel into your feet,” Sara prompted. “Just feel the weight. How do you feel in your body?”

“I feel firmly planted,” I replied, trying to channel Connie’s father. “I’m feeling something behind me.”

There was nobody there, so Sara instructed Christopher to stand behind me to be that something. She asked what he felt when he looked at me.

“I feel a lot of aggression,” he said through tight lips. “I want to slap him. I’m really angry at him.”

“Are you breathing?” she asked him.

“No.”

Just then, Jackie walked between us. The mare stopped and held firm.

“Any different?” Sara questioned.

“It’s diffused a bit,” Christopher replied.

Sara speculated that Christopher must be channeling Connie’s abusive grandfather.

Connie herself was played by Stephanie, who isolated herself inside a circle drawn in the dirt. She told Kay, who was representing Connie’s mother, to stay away. Jackie trotted over to Kay, slapping the woman’s face with her tail.  

For an hour we all stood like duelers in the sun, engaging one another in drawn-out emotional exchanges. At the end, Sara presented the real Connie with a rock.

“Feel the weight of this burden that you’ve been carrying from your mom,” she instructed.

“Oh, it’s much heavier than this,” Connie replied, shaking her head.

“Well,” Sara countered, “it’s a representation of something that you’re carrying that you don’t want to carry anymore, right? And, your mom is acknowledging that she’s willing to take it back. Go ahead. You can give it back to your mother.”

With tears streaming down her face, Connie passed the rock to Kay.

“I want to be done,” Connie said.

“We can be done,” Sara confirmed. “Keep in mind that you might get some information in the next few days. You might get a call. It’s affecting your parents and your grandparents too.”

Sara gives instructions to Stephanie

Christopher’s constellation came next.

“I’m the first person for generations of my family who isn’t a drug addict or an alcoholic,” he began. “There was violent abuse throughout my mother’s and father’s families. My father left when I was four, and I didn’t have a relationship with him until my adult years. My mother was an alcoholic and my stepfather was fully checked out. The huge trauma was that I was horribly abused by the father of the stepfather to the point where I barely survived. I was a very suicidal kid.”

Stephanie gently grasped the hand of her husband as he continued. “I left home at 18 and started skiing, eventually becoming a professional skier and climber, and my whole life got amazing. Then, in my mid 20s, I broke my back, which ended my skiing career. After that, I had the great blessing to start a nonprofit organization that has helped thousands of kids by giving them the same kind of experiences that I had. After 15 years of building this amazing worldwide organization, I’ve started to transition out of it. Ever since I made the decision to transition, my back injury has been really flaring up. I want to address that, and also the need to disconnect from the old survivor story that I’ve been carrying with me all these years. One of the issues that I think it’s really affecting is that I have resistance to starting a family. It’s something that Stephanie and I have talked about a lot. I’m worried about continuing a bad legacy.”

Back in the corral, Sara had swapped Jackie for Silver, a stallion. Christopher was clenching his fists, pumping himself up. “I feel like I could do a back-handspring into the ring!” he remarked.

Sara told him to stand wherever he wanted, so he hopped onto a tire in the center—the only high ground.

I had kept my role as a father—Christopher’s this time. Kay was the mother again, and Connie was Christopher’s back pain. The animals, Jack and Silver, would be left unassigned. This would allow them the freedom to find their identities as the therapy progressed, Sara explained.

The session started out slowly until Jack the dog began racing furiously around the corral. I thought that it looked like fun, so I tore off after him. We took turns chasing each and being chased all around the ring. When I returned to my place, panting, Sara turned to Christopher.

“Does what he did mean anything to you?” she asked.

Christopher seemed disappointed. “My father’s not a very vital, athletic person at all, so that’s interesting that he would want to do that.”

Just then, Silver walked over and stood between Connie (Christopher’s back pain) and me. I ran my fingers through the stallion’s mane.

“What you want to do to Connie?” Sara asked Christopher.

“I want to squash her like a pancake,” he said.

“Say, ‘I want to pancake you!’” the therapist directed.

“I want to pancake you!” he shouted.

“How does that feel for you, Connie?”

“I just felt strong, and like am going to be here for you,” Connie responded.

“Connie, say, ‘You can’t pancake me!’”

“You can’t pancake me!”

Sara next turned her attention to Connie and me—standing on either side of Silver. “You seem like a couple to me. The horse has an erection, which makes me think there might be a sexual relationship between you two.”

Sara turned to Christopher. “Does that make sense to you?”

“My father is a martyr,” he replied. “He’s a victim. He’s masochistic. Both of his wives brutalized him. I could see there being almost a sexual charge around suffering.”

In a series of exchanges, Sara connected the back pain to an intergenerational lack of emotional support.

Sara lined us up behind Christopher. “I’m going to do seven generations,” she explained. “Connie, get behind Roc. You’re going to be the grandfather.”

When we were all lined up, Sara turned to Christopher. “Now, I want you to slightly lean back.”

Silver began to whinny.

“You’re feeling fear,” the therapist concluded. “The horse is picking up on that.”

“I don’t feel that I’m going to be supported,” Christopher stated. “I feel like he’s going to buckle.”

Sara next began to inquire into Christopher’s religious beliefs.

“I have a very strong spiritual connection that I’ve pulled from all sorts of different things,” he replied.

“I know it’s silly,” the therapist said, “but I’m going to play God now, okay?”

The session ended with Sara as God being cradled by Stephanie who was playing one of Christopher’s distant ancestors. The ancestor was an unknown evil individual who killed many innocent children.

“I caused all of this suffering,” Stephanie announced, gesturing towards Christopher’s entire lineage. “All of them belong to me. You can’t save them.”

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to save innocent children,” Christopher said, wiping at his eyes.

At the end, when we were ourselves again, we all shook hands and embraced.

Two months later, I called Christopher to ask if anything in his life had changed. He said his back hurt less, he was more aware of his own inherent wholeness, and he was committed to starting a family. Still, he was cautious about attributing those developments to our day at Silver Horse.

“I’ve been on this spiritual journey for a long time,” he stated, “and along the way, I’ve had help from many different places. I know that I had a real authentic and insightful experience with this woman named Sara, and my wife, and a few other people—but from a narrative standpoint, it’s challenging. Trying to making sense of it all is a bit of a fool’s errand. Like so many experiences in my life, that day at the ranch is one more drop in the ocean of who I am.”

Follow Roc’s latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.

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