Lisa Arie has trained with horses for years, but her specialty is in training executives.
The so-called “CEO whisperer” lives on 160 acres of Colorado plains, where since 2005, she and husband Jess have run an experiential learning center for CEOs, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs to unplug and discover how they can lead more mindful lives.
Vista Caballo, which roughly translates to “perspective of the horse” in Spanish, uses horses to guide the business elite through enlightenment. It’s no ordinary corporate retreat.
“We can learn a lot from a species that thinks quite differently that we do,” Arie says. “A horse is going to be honest with you. It’s not safe for them if they lie to you. Their self-preservation is very important. They are prey animals — different from us — we are predators.”
“If I can have a prey animal feel safe with me as a predator, it means I’m probably doing something pretty right as a leader,” she says.
Over 800 people have taken advantage of Vista Caballo’s offerings since 2006.
The signature program at Vista Caballo invites participants to stay three days and four nights. Arie talks to executives before their arrival about their expectations and goals, and she creates opportunities for “interspecies interaction” to help clients forge new ways of thinking. They might learn to approach a horse without spooking it, for example.
There are ways to coerce a horse, through reinforcement and punishment, to behave the way you want. But at Vista Caballo, the horses are given much more autonomy than those you see in training centres. They roam the pastures freely and don’t always listen to their owners.
Arie says if she can create a bond with an animal that has its freedom, “that’s going to show me what kind of connection I can have with any species, including my own.”
Arie describes the work in lofty language. She believes spontaneous, as well as curated, activities with horses activate “different intelligence systems” in the human design. Participants might tap into an emotional state in order to relate with the docile animal, or become more mindful by focusing on one task at a time, like guiding a horse along a fence.
The tasks are usually mundane. Arie calls simplicity the foundation of the work.
“We’re not paid to listen to our instincts. A lot of time we dismiss them and we wonder how we end up in trouble,” Arie says. At Vista Caballo, “we bring everything back to the basics.”
In one memorable exercise, Arie took a visiting CEO to the barn, where the horses roam freely inside instead of being kept in stalls. It was time to let them out to graze. She asked how he might open the doors so that the excited horses would not trample him on their way out.
He came up with about 10 safe and pragmatic solutions.
“Typical CEO, he chose the most challenging one,” Arie remembers. “He said, ‘I’m going to open the gate, and I’m going to [use] my presence to sort of usher them out one at a time.’ … OK, is it possible? Absolutely. Would I have recommended it right out of the bat? Maybe not.'”
The CEO unlatched the door and planted his feet firmly. He gestured for the animals to calm themselves. The horses matched his energy and walked out in a single-file line.
“What happened is a reawakening of that side of him which is probably why he wanted to become a CEO in the first place — that great, creative side where you can make new things happen,” Arie says. Through journaling and follow-up conversations with Arie by phone, the executive learned to integrate that creative thinking upon his return to the office.
Arie smiles wide when she recalls one former participant, a producer based in Los Angeles, who said upon his return, “Everyone wants to know where I got the work done.”
Participants stay in cabins that Arie describes as “Ralph Lauren rustic” and enjoy organic foods prepared with local ingredients by a private chef. Phones and laptops are prohibited.
During the Vista Signature Experience, the ranch hosts just one guest at a time.
“If you’re taken care of, then you can stay present,” Arie says.
Arie knows first-hand the pressures her clients face. Before opening Vista Caballo, she ran successful companies across advertising, film production, and talent management. She rose to the top of the advertising world, thanks in part to an award-winning campaign for Motel 6 (she produced the famous “We’ll leave the light on for you” commercials).
At age 36, Arie was diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease. Her doctors said it would kill her. Arie turned to horses for comfort and trained under legendary horse trainers.
“Somewhere in the middle of all this, something inside me started coming alive again,” says Arie, who today lives without symptoms of the disease she declined to name. “I felt this incredible sensation of aliveness and connection.”
The experience inspired her to leave New York City and move to the dusty plains of Dove Creek, Colorado (population: 735) where her cofounder and husband run the retreat center.
She won’t give exact costs for enrollment, but says it’s “in the ballpark” of a Tony Robbins seminar. The self-help guru leads a popular personal development workshop that costs $10,000.
Scientific research on the effectiveness of equine-assisted activities and therapies runs thin, though the findings that do exist are positive. One review completed in 2013 and published in “Health Psychology” evaluated 14 studies on horse therapy. The author found that nine studies suggested horse therapy has “statistically significant positive effects,” described as decreased behavioural, psychological, physical, and psychosocial challenges.
Arie insists her work is not “equine therapy,” however.
“It’s most certainly therapeutic,” Arie says, but Vista Caballo makes no health claims.
It’s merely a place where horses and humans can just be.