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Equine Therapy Is a Growing Wellness Travel Trend. Here's Where to Try It.

United States Wellness Female Travel
by Keri Bridgwater Feb 21, 2024

It seems horses have been never more en vogue when it comes to feel-good, or wellness, travel.

Last year, “equine therapy” topped wellness trend searches in the US, with searches steadily rising year after year since the mid-2000s, especially in western states like Colorado and Montana. But that shouldn’t be surprising, as the bond between humans and horses has always run deep.

Though a recently discovered archaeological site in central Europe suggests horseback riding may date back more than 5,000 years, therapeutic riding, or “hippotherapy,” can be credited to the ancient Greeks. Specifically, it was recorded by “Father of Medicine” Hippocrates, who touted the therapeutic benefits of riding horses for mental and physical well being as far back as 600 BCE.

These days, luxury resorts and western-style dude ranches alike have tapped into the healing power of horses and the human-animal bond with multi-day retreats and specialized workshops. On-the-ground activities range from meditation sessions and spending time with resident herds to natural horsemanship classes — classes on training techniques based on horses’ instinctive behaviors and methods of communication to teach people about building trust, confidence, and leadership skills.

woman in barn with helmet petting horse nose - equine therapy

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Scientific research around equine therapy is ongoing, but it’s gaining recognition as an effective tool that helps a broad spectrum of people, from those with physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges to veterans and first responders with PTSD. Being around horses has also been shown to regulate the nervous system, lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels to reduce stress — and even improve self-esteem.

Horses are highly intuitive and pros at reading human body language. They deliver immediate, non-judgmental feedback that often helps people open up about their challenges without feeling overwhelmed. At luxury Montana resort Paws Up, guests can work with adopted mustangs during “Horse Whispering” sessions, which equestrian manager Jackie Kecskes says changes for many many attendees how they interact with animals, not just horses. “Regardless of the masks we might be wearing, horses know us instantly, and one of the biggest life lessons they can teach us is to be more present, if we care to learn from them,” she says.

woman doing groundwork at equine therapy retreat

Groundwork — learning horsemanship skills out of the saddle — is a big part of many equine therapy retreats. Photo: Groomee/Shutterstock

It’s a sentiment echoed by Melissa Smolik, director of the Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation in Utah, a rescue organization founded by the owner of the abutting Lodge at Blue Sky. Guests of the resort can meet and interact with the horses, getting to see first-hand how they’re treated and cared for by the team. “The true benefit of being with a horse extends beyond riding,” says Smolik. “Spending time in their presence with no goal other than connection, is incredibly healing and impactful.”

Here’s where to try equine therapy on your next wellness getaway, no riding experience required.

Unbridled Retreats

Woman hugging horse at an equine therapy retreat

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Kind of like life coaching, except with horses, Unbridled Retreats are women-only experiences led by renowned equine coach Devon Combs and held at select partner ranches and resorts across the country. The programs combine self-discovery with adventure, and are open to guests with or without experience with horses.

Equine therapy sessions are more experiential than talk therapy. Although sessions begin with an intention-setting talk to discuss reasons for attending and goals, most of the time is spent in a series of groundwork (out of the saddle) exercises where the horses provide feedback and reinforcement. The program is designed to help people get in touch with and process feelings, or release trapped emotions.

Unbridled Retreats works with several hotels around the United States.

  • Rancho de los Caballeros & White Stallion Ranch, Arizona: Unbridled Resorts offers programs in Arizona at Rancho de los Caballeros in the Saguaro-studded town of Wickenburg, and the family-owned White Stallion Ranch near Tucson. Retreats run for four or five days and include transformative encounters with Combs, plus daily horseback rides. The goal is to increase confidence in and out of the saddle for women who may be at personal or professional crossroads.
  • Alisal Guest Ranch, California: Retreat days at this luxury dude ranch near Santa Barbara include two full mornings of equine coaching that incorporates guided interactions with horses selected from the Alisal herd. The horses are a mix of different personalities according to Combs. There are horses who like to get up close to guests, which she calls “great teachers for helping people learn how to set healthy boundaries,” stubborn horses “to teach people about leadership,” and horses with a sense of humor “to remind people to laugh when needed,” she says. There’s an option for scenic afternoon trail rides, too. Non-retreat guests at Alisal can also spend time in the saddle during wrangler-led Horsemanship 101 workshops.
  • Sensei Lāna’i, A Four Seasons Resort, Hawaii: Science-backed spa treatments and culinary programming by well-known chefs may be the draw for most well-heeled travelers to the high-end Sensei Lana’i, on the fairly exclusive island of Lana’i, but horses have also found their way into the resort’s wellness journeys. The Unbridled Retreat program this summer promises five days of equine coaching with resident horses from Lanai Ranch, and a guided ride through the nearby wooded hills of Koele. The goal of the program is to encourage mindfullness, creativity, and sense of well-being while also focusing on goals, hopes and dreams for the future.

The Lodge at Blue Sky, Utah

With its pretty Creek House accommodations, infinity pool, and sleek spa, the Lodge at Blue Sky consistently lands on “world’s best” lists for upscale stays. But it’s set on a 3,500-acre working dude ranch, so horses are also a part of its DNA.

Horsemanship doesn’t begin in the saddle at Blue Sky, though the fundamentals of communication and riding skills are taught in “The Cowboy Way” workshop. ​​Instead, guests can head to the on-site animal rescue sanctuary, the Saving Gracie Equine Healing Foundation, for an experience called “Wisdom of the Horse.” It incorporates therapeutic touch and horse breathwork, during which guests put their hands on the horse’s chest or side and go through guided breathing exercises. The goal is to create a meditative space and foster a deeper bond between human and horse, and, eventually, be able to use the breath to communicate with the peaceful animals.

The Lodge at Blue Sky: 27649 Old Lincoln Hwy, Wanship, UT 84017

Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa, Arizona



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Venerable wellness retreat Miraval Arizona is lauded for its luxurious adobe-style casitas and mindful spa curriculum, but it’s also run an equine wellness program for almost 30 years. The therapeutic offerings were first introduced by Wyatt Webb, a no-nonsense cowboy who played a huge role in developing equine therapy in the United States. (He retired in 2021).

No riding experience is required to attend any of Mirival’s equine activities. Options range from meetings with the herd at the resort’s Purple Sage Ranch (including its most recent addition, Tater), group meditation with horses, and even a private art class in which a horse becomes the canvas.

For a deeper and more personal dive into healing with horses, travelers should consider the four-day “Trust The Journey: An Equine Immersion.” Days are filled with workshops and activities designed to help with self-connection, access untapped personal potential, and form a new (or renewed) sense of purpose. “Many guests join us at Purple Sage Ranch for an equine experience without knowing quite what to expect,” says program leader Lucinda Vette, “but are often surprised at the emotional depth and life-shifting impact they feel after just a few hours with the horses.”

Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa: 5000 East, E Vía Estancia Miraval, Tucson, AZ 85739

Zapata Ranch, Colorado

riding on an equine therapy retreat through great sand dunes national park

Riders on horseback in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Photo: Wayne Broussard/Shutterstock

Equine therapy in Colorado is becoming more common, and Zapata Ranch is a great place to try it. A historic 1800’s-era homestead anchors the remote, working Colorado ranch west of Denver, drawing riders of all stripes. Open between early March and late October, Zapata has only 17 high-end rooms and serves “ranch-to-table” meals family-style every night. Special interest workshops range from Western literature to leatherwork, but upcoming equine therapy restorative retreats are designed to help women reconnect with nature and themselves on horseback.

Experienced riders looking to learn more about equine communication can check out the “True West Horsemanship” program, covering the history of riding, plus groundwork and communication drills with the horses. Toward the end of the week-long program, participants will start heading out on longer rides through bison and cattle pastures and the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Zapata Ranch: 5305 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146

Carmel Valley Ranch, California



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Founded by a horse-loving clinical psychologist, equine programs at Carmel Valley Ranch near Big Sur, California, allow guests to hang out with horses at the resort’s hilltop barn and corral, and with its far-ranging views of the estate, the setting couldn’t be more idyllic. Observing how the five-strong therapy herd interacts with people and one another is especially popular with families. Those over 21 at the resort can take advantage of “Equines and Wine,” which includes unwinding over a robust glass of Monterey red while while watching the horses enjoy their dinner.

Carmel Valley Ranch: 1 Old Ranch Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

C Lazy U Ranch, Colorado

Thanks to a heated indoor arena, guests can ride year-round at this working dude ranch near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The ranch is known for its 200-horse herd, and offering trail rides from spring through fall. But a few times a year, C-Lazy U Ranch hosts various equine-focused retreats. There’s a four-night riding and wellness retreat for women that teaches a mix of horseback riding, stress-management, and meditation skills, using the act of horseback riding to stay in the present. In early summer, there’s a three-night horse and yoga retreat for mindful equestrians packed with arena sessions and trail rides.

C Lazy U Ranch: 3640 CO-125, Granby, CO 80446

The Resort at Paws Up, Montana


Set on a working cattle ranch outside of Missoula, Paws Up is an adults-only glamping resort set on a luxe dude ranch. Guest days are spent with outdoor activities like hiking, ATVing, evening bonfires, and fly-fishing with gourmet chefs. Of course, since it’s a ranch, there are plenty of equestrian activities, too.

Wild mustangs are challenging to train and most ranches don’t have them., so Paws Up is somewhat unique in that it runs an adoption and training program. The “Horsepower” demonstration illustrates how they can successfully coexist on a working ranch, but the mustangs really shine during horse whispering workshops, which help guests build trust and mutual respect by learning to communicate with them using subtle non-verbal cues.

The Resort at Paws Up: 40060 Paws Up Rd, Greenough, MT 59823

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