A Mirror to the Mind: An Interview with Cynthia Sweeley
Cynthia Sweeley of Wildfire Ranch Spiritual Retreat believes that we are currently experiencing the worst epidemic of depression ever seen by mankind. Socialization no longer has a premium spot in our lives, as the majority of communication occurs via the Internet and across computer or cell phone screens. With this lack of personal interaction comes an increase in masked emotions and the inability to reveal the feelings that hold people back emotionally. Sometimes all it takes is one interaction with a strong, majestic horse at Wildfire Ranch to expose what a person is keeping bottled up inside and to move forward on a path towards healing.
Sweeley began riding horses at ten years old, and her hobby quickly turned into an obsessive passion. During her years as a student at Pennsylvania State University, a career woman, and young mother, Sweeley thoroughly missed horses and longed for the day when she would have enough money to own horses again. Finally, in 2002, Sweeley and her husband bought seven acres out in the country in Central Pennsylvania, built a 6,000 square foot log home to be split for use as the family home and the location of their business, and purchased ten horses to start a horse ranch. For six years, Sweeley lived what she describes as the “perfect life.” Her business was booming, her family lived in a beautiful home surrounded by grazing horses, and she spent her spare time riding horses and leading trail rides through the nearby forests.
Then, within a three month period in 2008, Sweeley’s business went bankrupt, her husband gambled away their money and filed for divorce, the IRS demanded an interrogation over employee taxes, she was sued by both aprinter and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, her log home went into foreclosure, and she spent a large portion of her time in a wheelchair due to sciatic nerve damage and back pain. At one point, Sweeley was rushed to the hospital where the doctor told her she was experiencing early symptoms of heart failure.
“The cardiologist told me that I was literally dying of a broken heart,” said Sweeley.
As she continued to experience terrible depression, her life became meaningless, and she began willing herself to die. However, her young daughter noticed something that would change Sweeley’s outlook on life forever. Each day, when she was caring for the horses, she seemed to be happier. Once she realized that just being near the horses was having a therapeutic effect on her, she began to experience a drastic increase in her piece of mind and a new hopefulness took over.
“I actually wanted to live again,” said Sweeley. “There was hope.”
The significant impact that the horses were having on her life led her to extensively research equine therapy for depression. Sweeley spent two years researching equine-assisted therapy and was fascinated by the almost magical impact that horses have on those who are facing all sorts of emotional battles. Inspired by her own experience and research, Sweeley became an equine therapist and officially started Wildfire Ranch Spiritual Retreat in 2012.
The Ranch and the Horses
Located in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, Wildfire Ranch offers public guided trail rides, overnight accommodations in the 1,500 square foot Ponderosa Lodge, and horse therapy. Guests tend to visit the ranch initially to go on a trail ride. Sweeley, her 15-year-old daughter, and volunteers take people on public guided trail rides in the Bald Eagle State Forest. While Sweeley used to lead the trail rides simply as a way to cover the expenses associated with the horses, the program has exploded and now attracts guests from across the country. Sweeley’s horses are gaited, meaning they move smoothly and are graceful enough for guests to trot and canter on during trail rides. The horses are well-suited for beginners and are praised by guests for their personalities and peaceful nature. Sweeley has repeatedly been told that she operates the only existing public trail rides in Central Pennsylvania and that her horses are the happiest horses that have ever been seen at a public trail stable.
While people are on a trail ride with Wildfire Ranch, they often hear about the horse therapy program that the ranch also offers. Sweeley estimates that 70 percent of people are depressed to some extent, so many guests grow interested in learning more about and attending a horse therapy session.
“There is an epidemic of depression in America today like never seen before and society is demanding solutions,” said Sweeley. “Many people find that counseling is effective but not enough to bring the desired peace of mind that will give them better quality of life.”
While hippotherapy has been proven to be successful for those with physical disabilities, Sweeley emphasizes the fact that Wildfire Ranch provides equine therapy for those who are in need of emotional support.
Wildfire Ranch’s horses have received extensive training in order to prepare them for their role in therapy. Before therapeutic use, they receive many hours of training in ground exercises that command respect from the horses towards the human as “leader of the herd.” Sweeley implements gentle training techniques that involve praising the horses during times of excellence and removing praise during times of disobedience. While the training prepares the horses to perform as expected, Sweeley believes that part of the thrill of working with horses comes from the fact that they are living creatures and each possesses a unique personality.
Sweeley and her horses most often work with those suffering from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, rage, and other emotional hardships.
A Mirror to the Mind
“Horse therapy shows people that they are just existing and not living,” said Sweeley. “Horses can pick up on your emotions even if you don’t feel them.”
Because of this, Sweeley believes that 90 percent of horse therapy at Wildfire Ranch has an extreme impact on people. When people arrive at the ranch for their first therapy session, they are often suppressing their emotions. Because of horses’ natural instincts as prey animals, they have a special way of sensing how other living beings are feeling and behaving. This natural behavior leads the horse to mirror the emotions that are locked up deep inside a person. Sweeley believes that this phenomenon helps people to realize what feelings they are masking and opens up the door to healing.
One testimonial from an Iraq veteran who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) perfectly sums up the role of horses in therapy.
“The horses showed me that I keep everyone at a distance by not allowing them near me. As I started changing my behavior, the horses changed their own,” said the veteran. “I never even realized I was so anti-social and depressed. My entire quality of life is changing right in front of my eyes.”
Along with mimicking the churning emotions in humans, horses fascinate people because of their size and beauty. The guests at Wildfire Ranch have the opportunity to work with the horses on the ground, in the saddle, and even on the trail. During the therapy sessions, Sweeley and her volunteers lead exercises that empower the people. Having the ability to control a 1,200 pound horse gives people the emotional strength to realize that they also have the power to control their own lives.
A Balanced Approach to Healing
Wildfire Ranch emphasizes a balanced approach to healing where the mind, emotions, body, and spirt are all connected. Sweeley has done research that has shown her that, if any one of these areas of the human is traumatized, a ripple effect will be seen throughout the rest of the person. Because of this, Sweeley encourages her guests to be open-minded to the possibility that there is a higher spiritual power, guiding people through life and the healing process. She has seen many unexplainable miracles occur between people and horses and views this as evidence of God’s power in touching people’s lives through the use of horses.
For instance, a 22-year-old Wildfire Ranch visitor, knowing Sweeley’s strong religious beliefs, explained that she was an atheist and did not want anyone to talk to her about God. During her trail ride with Sweeley, the woman shared that she suffered from severe insomnia, averaging only two or three hours of sleep per night. Little success with prescription medications, exercise, and counseling had the woman feeling hopeless. After the ride, the woman left, and Sweeley thought little more about the day. However, six months later Sweeley received a phone call from the woman, and she said “I don’t know what you did to me, but I have been sleeping nine to ten hours a night since that trail ride. I want you to tell me about this God you believe in.”
“When something cannot be explained, it is supernatural, or as we call it, ‘a God thing’,” said Sweeley.
While religion is a prominent part of Sweeley’s personal life, she encourages people of all belief systems to visit Wildfire Ranch and appreciate the therapeutic benefits associated with human-animal interaction.
The popularity of equine therapy and the success of programs such as those offered at Wildfire Ranch have led to an increase in the number of people interested in partnering with a horse as part of the healing process. Sweeley’s operation is constantly growing, and she is confident in what lies ahead. In the near future, she believes that she will need to hire employees, purchase more land, and expand her facilities in order to meet demands. As Wildfire Ranch and equine therapy continue to become better known, Sweeley feels that she may end up committing her operation to the equine therapy portion full-time.
“Horses are in another world or realm. Not a lot of people have horses anymore, so when they are around them, they are awestruck,” said Sweeley. “I want to be able to continue to give people this life-changing experience.”