“I was standing right up on that hill at the age of 17, and I just knew something great was going to happen here,” Joanna Tyson explained, without a trace of self- consciousness. Her father, retired Army Chaplain Gene Tyson, bought the 27 acres of land while the family was still living in Washington, D.C. He, too, felt there was something about this wild stretch of land in Lampasas, Texas. In 2001 it served as a place to help soldiers and their families prepare for deployment. At that time, the Tysons had five horses and would offer rides to the children who were preparing to be without a parent for a year or who were learning how to welcome one home. Now, the family runs Tyson’s Corners Retreat and Wellness Center with fourteen horses, two or more dogs and one very large pig, each one a member of the herd.
Tyson brings 30 years of experience with horses and both a Level II Equine Assisted Growth and Learning (EAG- ALA) and an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) certification to her position as Equine Specialist at Tyson’s Corners. She has studied the philosophy of renowned natural horsemanship educator Pat Parelli and works directly with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) to provide a variety of on-the-ground experiential equine therapy to the Central Texas community.
She has myriad stories of how people are changed after building a relationship with one of her horses. The first thing she told the families at a recent reintegration retreat was, “You’re going to pick a horse today.” Right away, a dad with four kids under the age of seven picked Rebel. “Rebel—the old man there with the swayed back, he’s my longest relationship,” Tyson laughed, her love for the old horse clear. Especially when someone has just returned from a deployment, each family or couple is challenged to stay physically connected somehow. With this family, “the mother immediately disengaged—she spent her time at the picnic table with her hand sanitizer.” Eventually, the four children got into a row on the lead rope, and Rebel dropped his head as low as he could to keep an eye on all of the little ones. Dad stayed right with them, and they all worked together to groom Rebel. Tyson said softly, “I underestimated his gentleness—but Rebel was watching them all the time.”
At the very next retreat at the Center, there was a couple with a significant age difference who were on the brink of divorce. They also picked Rebel; the husband really identified with the old horse. Tyson told them the story of how Rebel worked so sweetly with the dad who was completely overwhelmed by wrangling his four young children, and it really moved this woman. Hearing about how even Tyson could misjudge Rebel, her old standby, made her own assumptions suddenly clear. She realized how many wonderful qualities she was overlooking in her husband. This experience turned their whole relationship around.
“It happens so quickly—people tell stories so much easier after working with the horses,” Tyson explained. While sessions change based on specific needs, it’s a fairly straightforward process all in all. A person, couple or group shows up at the ranch and is told to pick a horse. Catch it, give it a name and groom it. No one is given any directions. Some immediately ask for guidance. Others grab a bridle and set about the task at hand. Others stay silent and build a relationship with their horse with no words or rope, not wanting the horse to feel trapped. As soon as a person arrives, Tyson and her teammates begin observing. She looks for patterns— anything that happens three times—shifts in behavior, or unique actions and writes it all down. She and the LMFT she works with take note of how each person makes subjective and objective observations of their chosen horse. All of these notes are read back to the individual at the end of the session. “It’s amazing to hear your own assumptions; how often you put them on other people,” Tyson explained. “The horses read us so much better.”
Tyson, and the work she does at Tyson’s Corners Retreat and Wellness Center, is about giving everyone a chance. From the neglected, starving horse to the young girl visiting from Belton’s Child Advocacy Center who demonstrated her suicidal thoughts by the way she interacted with the herd, Tyson and her team provide a safe place for folks to come and be who they are. Equine Assisted Growth and Learning offers an amazing opportunity for individual reflection as well as having your patterns, actions and observations reflected back to you by trained, empathetic experts. “I always tell people, it’s good therapy, shoveling horse poop. It gives you an enormous amount of time to think about all your own shit,” she said. Whether it’s old man Rebel, young Osiris, shy Bey or any of the others, each horse embodies something different every day. For some, the horse might become a partner or mother, for others, a goal or an obstacle. Whatever it may be, the work that is done on these Hill Country acres is solution-focused and always honest.