As someone who never considered herself a horse person, working with the people and horses at Ananda Ranch recently provided me with a surprisingly powerful experience.
Many programs tap into the healing and therapeutic qualities of horses, but founder Tricia Weldon says her educational component sets Ananda Ranch apart from them all.
“The word Ananda means ‘bliss’ in the ancient language of Sanskrit,” says Weldon. “At Ananda Ranch, we work to empower girls and women and to help them find and follow their bliss.”
Each workshop is a collaborative effort between Weldon – who is a certified equine professional – and Dr. Sherry Ackerman, a  psychologist, author, and master horsewoman. Both women are also educators who are accustomed to working with women and young girls.
“Horses are a mirror of who we are,” says Ackerman. “While friends are not always honest, horses are. They’ll tell you what you don’t want to know about yourself – in a completely loving and non-judgemental way.”
“Horses read you the moment you walk into their space,” says Weldon. “They intuitively pick up on a person’s confidence and mood.  Once you learn to trust a horse, and accept the trust they give you, everything else falls into place.”
Finding life’s calling
Allowing her own destiny to fall into place, Weldon feels that she’s finally found her life’s calling.
“I saw my first horse when I was four years old. Since then I’ve been trying to find out how to make my life about horses,” Weldon says. “But I was always taught that horses were a hobby – not a living.”
Instead of following her passion to see where it would lead, Weldon continued training horses as a hobby while she earned a Master’s degree in English, eventually becoming an instructor at College of the Siskiyous.
“I kept telling my students that they needed to find what drives them – to find their bliss, and follow it. One day they asked me why I wasn’t following my own advice. So in October of 2008, I got my ficticious business name. I thought I’d begin Ananda Ranch slowly,  but things have really snowballed... I’m finally following my bliss.”
Weldon’s concept for the ranch combines her natural affinity for horses with her observations of women in the classroom. “I kept seeing a lack of hope in my students,” she says. “In today’s society of standardization and testing, the individuality and creativity within us is slowly being conformed into very small boxes... Ananda Ranch workshops are designed to nurture the female’s unique intellectual, psychological and emotional needs, to inspire them to become fearless, confident and self-reliant.”
Unforgettable journey
As a newspaper reporter working on a local story, I participated in a session with three other women who were complete strangers to me at the start: Giovanna Taormina, executive director of the Girl’s Circle Association; Dr. Jill Antoine, associate clinical professor of anesthesia at UCSF; and San Francisco attorney Nadine Zeltzer.
It became a life-changing journey that I’ll never forget.
Weldon and Ackerman stood back to observe and asked us to perform several simple tasks with horses Yukon, Pepsi and Sequoia. One of the tasks – guiding a horse on a path between two poles –  sounded like it would be relatively simple. Instead, it proved to be a complex and enlightening process.
Taormina, who provides the ranch space in Mount Shasta for Weldon’s programs, has a fear of horses that began as a teenager after a traumatic riding experience. I have always been nervous around horses, and although Antoine and Zeltzer weren’t afraid of the animals, it was difficult for all of us to get the horses to do what we wanted them to.
When Antoine and I were first paired into a group, the going was tough. While her personality is assertive, practical and organized, mine is more timid and much less disciplined.
After a few hours of frustration and failed attempts, we began observing the horses and building a relationship with them and with one another. We started noticing how their reactions mirrored ours, and eventually came to better understand how we were presenting ourselves to the world.
Suddenly, things began clicking into place between my partner and I. Finally, we were able to work together to accomplish our common goal. When Yukon finally understood what we were asking of him and trotted between the two poles, the feeling of triumph was incredible. With plenty of wooping, hollering and hugs all around, we came away from the corral with a deeper understanding of ourselves, a better grasp of our own strengths and a healthy dose of confidence and pride.
My time with the horses gave me insight into my customary coping strategies in times of stress. The feeling of complete freedom and connection with the unbridled animals gave me self-confidence and helped to soothe my nervousness around horses.
Taormina was able to conquer some of her fears. As the co-founder of Girl’s Circle, an organization that encourages the development of strength, courage, confidence, honesty and communication skills for girls, Taormina was also impressed with the power of the workshop. “It was a deep experience... somewhat scary but very profound in creating self-awareness and change,” she says.
For Antoine, the workshop allowed her to begin breaking down barriers put in place during her childhood. “The physical power of the horses was amazing,” she says. “I feel like I owned that power – like I was a part of it. There have been a few profound experiences in my life that truly made an impression ­– and this was one of them.”
Zeltzer found and embraced her inner strength and confidence. “Sometimes it’s difficult to let go of your inhibitions, but the horses allow you to open up and realize things about yourself that you never knew,” she says.
‘Guaranteed’ enrichment
“No matter who you are, Ananda Ranch guarantees that all participants will experience self-improvement, personal enrichment and most importantly the feeling of true, unbridled bliss,” Weldon says.
Because the work with the horses is on the ground, anyone can participate in the program, regardless of physical ability, age or previous experience with horses. “The program is for any woman who wants to awaken their full potential, find strength in  themselves and find greatness within,” Weldon adds.
Part of Weldon’s vision for Ananda Ranch is to reach out and empower young girls and women in her own community. One quarter of all the proceeds from retreats and workshops at Ananda Ranch go toward Project Redhawk, a foundation which will allow Weldon’s program to be offered to Siskiyou County girls and women free of charge.
“Victims of domestic violence and abuse can benefit from a loving and trusting connection with the horses,” Weldon says. “As a Siskiyou County native, I want to support and empower the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and caregivers in this community.”
For more information about Ananda Ranch or Project Redhawk, you may visit www.anandaranch.org.