Ten years ago, city girl Sandy Bell took a four-day trail ride into the mountains that changed her life.
“It was not a beginner ride, and I found at the end of it, I had never been so sore, I had never been so tired and dirty, but I had never been so happy,” said Bell, who now operates Windhorse Retreat, an equine-assisted training facility near Rimbey.
Bell decided then and there she needed to learn how to ride a horse. After a year of lessons, she bought a Percheron-cross named Alaska who showed her the healing power of horses.
“I realized if I had a bad day, I’d go out and spend time with Alaska, and she always made it better.”
Since then, Bell has turned her own experience into a growing farm-based business — one that combines her love of horses with her interest in helping people.
“I wanted to get back to doing something where I felt like I was making a difference for people,” said Bell, who is a certified equine-assisted personal development coach.
“I can’t imagine my life now without horses. They have improved it immeasurably — emotionally and physically and even spiritually.”
Today, Bell has six horses — including four donated to her program — that she uses in workshops that incorporate natural horsemanship and personal development, such as goal setting, leadership, and self-reflection.
- More from the Alberta Farmer Express: Team-building takes on a new meaning at Windhorse Retreat
“We found that, when people are with horses and they’re learning things like how to communicate your status in the herd to the horse, that can highlight some personal things for them. They have these aha moments.”
Most training sessions involve working with the horses on the ground rather than on horseback, making her training accessible for people who have never ridden a horse before.
“What seems to be a simple thing — just hanging out with horses — can actually lead to some deeper conversations and reflection,” she said.
Horses facilitate that because they’re “experts at non-verbal communication.”
“As people, our non-verbal communication is 70 to 80 per cent of how we communicate, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to that,” said Bell. “But working with horses, we can get a glimpse into that whole other way that we communicate with each other.
“When we work with people, the feedback we get from them may not be as direct, as open and honest, and as immediate as the feedback we get from a horse.”
Word of mouth
Since moving to her farm and training facility six months ago, Bell has hosted two to three workshops a month, with eight to 10 people at each. Her new location, with its lush fields and forests, seems to be the ideal retreat for urbanites looking to get back to nature.
“People get really busy, and they get disconnected from nature. Being able to take some time in nature and spend some time with horses is special for them.”
Every workshop has sold out, but the farm’s distance from major centres is a challenge.
“We are competing with this sense of busyness that people have in their lives,” she said. “To make the time to do this is sometimes a struggle.”
Word of mouth and Facebook are her main marketing tools, but community support has also been key.
“People are so helpful. They don’t mind answering dumb questions from a greenhorn,” she said.
“I’m a city girl, and this is a real steep learning curve for me, but I’m enjoying the adventure.”