23 April 2022
Hillsborough, N.C. — Far beyond the days when riding horses was a necessity for transportation, a great number of people have found horseback riding to be a wonderful source of pleasure and significant benefit, physically and mentally. Numerous horse farms and horse riding trails exist across North Carolina. Some offer education and training; others focus on outdoor recreation or operate as event venues; some provide therapeutic treatments.
Blue Skies of Mapleview, a 15-acre horse farm and English riding facility located in the countryside near Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Durham, is unique among them. While Blue Skies of Mapleview does offer after-school lessons, summer horsemanship camp for ages 8-18, instructor certification, birthday parties and workshops, all led by highly qualified equine professionals, its Women’s Intuitive Riding (WIR) program, designed to connect horses, hearts and humans, is distinctive and special in ways that its students praise enthusiastically.
“It’s been just wonderful; that dream you’ve always wanted – the ability to go and be with a horse, brush the horse,” says Ellen Clevenger-Firley. “No matter how upset I was about the pandemic or the political environment, once you get up on the horse, you can meditate and clear your mind. It takes me away from everything else.”
The Women’s Intuitive Riding program is built around natural horsemanship, attunement with and respect for the horse.
“I love horses, I love animals. The Blue Skies stable is much more about being present with the horses than being competitive and just developing skills,” says Susan Thorne. “It’s helped me get more peace.”
Behind the Women’s Intuitive Riding program is horsewoman and equine professional, Deborah Pearson-Moyers, who started the program in 2003 and has continued to develop its content and activities to meet the needs of her students and clientele.
“Deborah does a great job of creating a safe environment for participants to feel vulnerable, able to learn and build confidence,” says Ann Murphy who returned to participate in the course for a second time after almost 20 years. Now in her third season, Murphy is one of several women who have chosen to work and ride together as a group.
Women’s Intuitive Riding is offered twice each year – fall/winter and spring/summer sessions, each lasting 12 weeks. Typically, a class is comprised of no more than six women. Inherent in the program is instruction towards basic skills such as grooming and horse care, saddling, using reins and walking. Thirteen horses currently live on the farm.
A certain level of fitness and balance is needed for participation. “There is a safety question, of course, but importantly, one needs an open mind and an open heart,” says Pearson-Moyers. Prior experience is not required. “I prefer them to know nothing and not come with bad habits. I prefer women who fear horses or have no experience at all. I like to help them get through their fear.”
Pearson-Moyers and her husband purchased the land where the horse farm is situated in 1991 and moved there with a young and growing family.
During the next few years, she taught her own children to ride. Others became aware when she offered a child’s riding lesson for a school auction and parents of some of her husband’s elementary school students began asking for lessons for their children. The business opened in 1996, starting with small after-school groups.
“After doing this for some years, I noticed the moms were kind of hanging over the fences with longing,” says Pearson-Moyers. One mom, saying she had discovered a book and felt compelled to offer it to Pearson-Moyers, gave her a book called The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the Horse by Linda Kohanov. “I was really in agreement with most of it and wanted to study with the author at her ranch but at $10,000 per week, that was not possible,” say Pearson-Moyers. Nevertheless, she was inspired.
Pearson-Moyers grew up in Blue Island, Illinois on the Southside of Chicago. “Chicago is our biggest suburb,” she jokes. She left there to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign where she earned a degree in counseling and women’s studies. Later, she studied at Emerson College in England at the Centre for Social Development. She has worked with rape victims, children at risk, incarcerated people and those on work release, probation or parole.
“I didn’t think sitting and talking was the only way to solve problems and for people to heal,” says Pearson-Moyers. “When I got the farm and I got this book, I thought, horses do heal women.”
What a horse knows
Horses can read a person’s physical and mental health and respond to the rider’s shift of energy, according to Pearson-Moyers.
“Horses can see through what we try to put on the surface,” says Murphy.
When a horse stalls and doesn’t follow commands, it can be reactive to some sort of emotional block within the rider. “I ask people if there is anything going on that this horse represents for them – a boss, a teenager. Who does this remind you of? As soon as this is acknowledged, the horse moves on,” says Pearson-Moyers. Horses are cautious and don’t want to be around people who are in a hurry, anxious or nervous. “What you see looks like magic but the horse is responding to the rider’s shift of energy,” says Pearson-Moyers.
Clevenger-Firley describes the first day of class: “When we were all novices, Deborah gave each of us a horse and told us to go stand in front of him – don’t talk, don’t pet, just stand there. Each horse did something different, exhibited a different personality.”
Horses have their own language and talk to other horses with body language, according to Pearson-Moyers. “Once you can read it, you know what they’re saying by how close they stand to you, what they do with their feet and tail, licking and chewing when there’s no food around, yawning under pressure and interesting things they do with their ears like putting them sideways like a donkey, laying them back or pricking them in the direction of an alarming sound. If someone trips or moves suddenly or screams, they react.”
WIR rider, Beth Zarem, finds that horses don’t need big commands. “I wanted to learn how to flick an ear and do the smallest things that get the horse to follow what I want him to do.”
“I like to get out of the way of the message that the horse is giving. It’s so profound to stand in the presence of a horse, look into that big brown eye and what you see is yourself,” says Pearson-Moyers. “Talk therapy has its place; it’s not in front of a horse. Horses don’t like to be talked over. Experiential learning has its place.”
Benefits of people and horses together
The Blue Skies of Mapleview farm and pasture is a beautiful, magical place but it offers more. Pearson-Moyers lists empowerment, healing and peacefulness as benefits of the WIR program for women. “Horses represent something for women – freedom, speed, competency. There’s nothing like trotting across the field with your hair flowing – we joke around that every woman turns into a nine-year-old girl on the back of a horse. We laugh more, we talk more, won’t be able to stop talking,” says Pearson-Moyers.
There are scientific studies that show that being around horses can result in lower blood pressure, breathing slower, and a heart rate that begins to match that of the horse, according to Pearson-Moyers. “The caveat is that it’s because we make it conscious. If I just said hop on a horse, give him a smack and off you go, hee-haw, that wouldn’t happen. Each time we ride, we do yoga stretches and breathing exercises beforehand.”
Other reported benefits include improved reflexes, balance and coordination; relaxation; increased physical strength and opportunities to be out into the fresh air and nature. Plus, it’s fun and tends to create happy, cheerful feelings and higher self-esteem.
Women from all walks of life and backgrounds are attracted to the Women’s Intuitive Riding program, as demonstrated by the women who participate in Thursday morning classes.
Ann Murphy is a practicing clinical social worker. Ellen Clevenger-Firley is a retired registered dietitian and nutritional bio-chemist. She is also a chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Susan Thorne met Deborah years ago when both women’s children attended the Emerson Waldorf School. “My husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas one year, something fun, not jewelry – I said I would like to ride horses. I looked it up and found the WIR.” This was the second time Susan was presented with the gift of horses. As a five-year-old child, her parents, with limited money, asked her if she wanted to go to kindergarten or learn to ride horses. She chose horses. “My dad took an extra job at a gas station to pay for it.”
Cathie Heck is a retired NC educator who also received the course as a gift – hers as a birthday present from her husband. Beth Zarem discovered WIR after moving to the area from Savannah, Georgia. She is a retired nurse anesthetist.
WIR can be very appealing to women in transition or those who have entered into another phase of their lives, according to Pearson-Moyers. “I ‘get’ women in transition, women who are considering options they never had before; opportunities to build in some me-time and become stronger, physically present and learn something new.”
WIR students also speak of healing. Course alumni Patricia Phillips moved into the area from California after going through very traumatic life events. She came across a flier for WIR, called and signed up. “It was the beginning of healing; a return to calm and hopefulness.”
Pearson-Moyers recalls one former student. “This woman was pretty quiet all semester, definitely working on something. At the end of the course, while thanking me for standing by her and supporting her through, she told me: “I hated being a nurse and I learned that if I can move a 1,000-pound horse with my finger, I can do anything.”” The woman quit nursing and bought a coffee shop.
“The first word that comes to mind is peace,” says Cathie Heck. “Plus you make a connection with nature and enjoy camaraderie and a support system within a group of women who share the love of horses.”
Pearson-Moyers’s first experience with horse riding happened on a guided trail ride while camping with her parents in Wisconsin. She was eight-years-old, fell in love with horses and has never gotten over it. Later on, many lessons and significant time spent trail riding led to her first horse purchase and work as a racehorse groom, on a Quarter horse ranch and leading mountain trail rides.
“My father told me I could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse,” says Pearson-Moyers. “I said, I’m not going to be any of those but of course when you are a mother, you are all of those plus a taxi driver.” Pearson-Moyers is the mother of four grown children. If someone is bold enough to ask her age, she responds by saying “I’m just a little older than your mother. I’m happy, busy and I love what I’m doing.”
“I didn’t actually have a vision for this business or pursuit,” she said. “I just followed my heart and I love the joy horses have on people, particularly women.”
Pearson-Moyers always teaches the Women’s Intuitive Riding classes herself. “Everything I’ve done in life has come together in this intuitive rider’s program for women – that’s why it’s so meaningful to me.”
“Regarding Deborah, the Women’s Intuitive Riding program and the farm, it’s all been magical,” says Thorne. “Of course, the horses get a lot of the credit – they are pretty wonderful, too.”