Maria Lisa Eastman finds it funny how history repeats itself. There’s an old family story about her maternal grandmother, Edith, a wild child if there ever was one, galloping around on her favorite horse at their Finland parsonage. As Edith’s mom watched from the parlor window, her horse leapt the fence with Edith in tow. A week later, Edith found herself enrolled in boarding school in St. Petersburg, Russia, learning how to be a lady.
Eastman was a wild teenager herself in the late 1960s, growing up in California and London where her dad worked as a physicist. Her parents also thought boarding school might do her good. They gave her a choice: She could choose California or she could go abroad. Eastman chose a school in Switzerland where she could improve her French and ride horses.
“Everyone who knows me well knows I’ve been in love with two things in my life: grasses and horses,” said Eastman, 57, executive director of Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services in Hyattville. Eastman founded the nonprofit in 2007. It uses horse therapy to work with kids at the Wyoming Boys School in Worland and the Big Horn Basin Children’s Center. Rainhorse is also involved in programs for veterans coming home from war and women victims of domestic abuse.
Everywhere Eastman has lived, she found horses that needed love and riding. Rainhorse now employs six therapy horses — Emmy, Rosie, Brego, Daylight, Coco and Finnegan — most of which were rescued from abuse or neglect or retired from their working careers. With her husband, Skip, two wire fox terriers and their pet pot-bellied pig, Willi, Eastman has found the life she had always searched for: a home, a ranch and an equine therapy program. It’s a life that not only satisfies her, but also brings healing to communities all across Wyoming.
WyoFile: Why horses?
Eastman: There is something about a horse, there always has been for me. I think it’s shared by a lot of people; this sense of wonder that this giant powerful creature would partner with me and cooperate and want to be a friend or a companion or helper … Some of it is cultural history. Horses have been a really powerful part of human culture for a long time, and they have empowered us as humans to move beyond our borders. And, I think that is a metaphor for internal borders and boundaries as well.
How did you realize horses can be used to treat mental health?
I think it was from my own youth. I was fairly troubled and I credit horses with helping me a lot. If I was feeling down and out, like a lot of teenagers do, I could go talk to my horse. I could hug my horse’s neck or go riding. It gives you such a sense of freedom and partnership with this powerful kind of mythical creature. The barn was this safe, calm quiet place where everything was just fine. It was my special spot, and it still is.
In Santa Fe, I had an old horse that was blind in one eye. His name was Levi. He was a thoroughbred and had been an open jumper in the national circuit which means he was really good. Jumping the big jumps, five or six feet.
He got blinded in one eye, I think it was a nail in a stall. He fell on hard times. We got him for my daughter to learn to jump on and then he went blind. We were going to put him down, but we just couldn’t do it. He was the first horse that taught me — I kind of knew this all along — that horses have so much more to offer than jumping big jumps, roping cows, chasing polo balls, pulling carriages. I had this horse that was unrideable, but he gave me so much. And by the way, he fully healed up and became very rideable. So Levi really opened my eyes: ‘Oh, so they don’t have to do all this horse stuff.’
Poem about Levi written by Eastman
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When I say goodbye to my old chestnut horse
With his lanky beauty and wounded eye
I feel like the world has ended, my
Safety wilts away, drained at its source.
I have trouble imagining that I will see him again
Shaking a cranky head over the morning gate
Or tilting his long nose to balance a missing half-world;
That holds his strength, his heartbreak, and his pain.
How could anyone else keep him safe, or keep him free
I’ve known the way to lead him back from certain death;
Trusting, he followed me each time, he was
Crippled, starved, and blind; now, he walks and eats and sees.
He’s the one who knows my path from dark to light,
His soft red coat is where I burrow safe and deep.
From his back the world reads right;
He is my power, my warmth, and my sight.
When did you begin to think about starting a horse therapy program?
I always wanted to work with people and horses, but that meant that I needed to have clients who wanted to go to horse shows. I didn’t feel like I fit real well with the horse show. So, I went back to school and received my master’s in watershed management.
I typically found horses that needed riding. One of the horses was owned by a professor of psychology at Prescott College in Arizona. His name was Paul Smith. I got to know him, and I guess the idea was forming in my head to start some kind of program where horses could help people feel connected. Not just to each other but to the larger world. I also began to study Buddhism at that point. One of the underlying themes of Buddhism is the web of connection. It occurred to me that maybe the reason horses had helped me so much was to make me feel that I belonged in the world. I ended up proposing to Paul that we try a pilot class called Relational Horsemanship at Prescott College. I designed this course and taught it, and Paul was the faculty sponsor. That was the foundation for the Prescott master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in equine therapy.
I went on to receive my certificate as an advanced instructor through NARHA (the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), now known as PATH International (the Professional Association of Therapeutic horsemanship International.) I got fantastic training in both physical and cognitive disabilities and teaching people with those disabilities to ride. Momentum was gathering. But my then husband, who is now deceased, really encouraged me to follow my heart. We sold the house and hit the road with a camper on the back of a pickup.
Life on the road was not for me. It really brought home for me that I needed horses and I needed a home. That again was speaking to me about doing what I was called to do: Develop a program with horses that helped people.
And is that when you founded Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services?
I have sustained a lot of injuries while working with horses, and it took this last one to really push me into finally doing what I needed to. So this November morning in 2006, we had a lot of activity here at Oxbow Ranch. I was going to be riding Daylight, my horse. She was a bit of a wild horse and had not been worked with, so I tried to educate her but let other things get in the way. Well, this particular morning, I went to step-up on her and that is the last thing I remember. I got bucked off. I was just laying on the ground. I had a traumatic brain injury from the fall. It was rated a moderate brain injury.
We kept Daylight, even after discussing the idea of putting her down and now she is one of our star therapists. She is unrideable, but that’s ok. I thought, ‘OK Maria, you almost died. Or was put in a wheel chair. So what is it going to take to follow your heart?’ And that was it. I finally got it.
Who does Rainhorse serve?
We have four programs: the program at the Wyoming Boys School, the new program with Northwest BOCES, (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), the veteran’s program that we run out of our own pockets and the women survivors of domestic violence that I am having a hard time finding funding for.
This one particular story pops out at me. There was a boy who had pretty major trauma in his life. This boy got chosen by Daylight. They worked together for two sessions in a row. I don’t really remember anything significant that happened except that after the program, the boy had said that Daylight had saved his life. Horses have a lasting effect and can actually save lives just by being horses.
For example, with the veterans program that Skip, my husband, is instrumental in, we put it in their control if this was worth doing, not top down where we tell them what they need. During our first session, six were combat vets. We do an introductory activity and I think at that point this particular participant was like, ‘This is kinda hokey.’ He kept looking at his watch.
Then I noticed that he got with Finnegan and they were hanging out together, and it was looking pretty sweet. I asked the people what horse they would like to work with for the rest of the day. It was obvious he wanted to be with Finn and she wanted to be with him. I asked if there was any particular reason he chose her and he said, ‘Well, she came over to me and that made me feel good. And she keeps taking my watch in her teeth and pulling on it.’ That is the thing about this work. Stuff like that happens you go, ‘Whoa. How does one explain that?’
Describe the Wyoming that you would like to live in.
The people who wave from their vehicles at everyone acknowledging that we’re all in this together, that we are all connected, despite our different beliefs, our different work and our different backgrounds. The land, the water, the sky, endlessly. The creatures, wild and domestic, that outnumber us humans. Friends and neighbors, a true sense of place.
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