Article in Thurston Talk Sept 1, 2020

Equine Assisted Learning: Horses Challenge You to be Your Best Self


“Horses are nature’s most honest, instinctual, and wise creatures. I want them to share their life lessons with people,” says Cathy Mahon. Photo courtesy: Cathy Mahon

Do you wish you were less stressed? More assertive at your job? Maybe you wish you could change the way you handle conflict or overcome being fearful. Changing yourself starts with understanding what your feeling when you find yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable, stressed or anxious. Maybe you have even bought a self-help book that’s now collecting dust somewhere. What if I told you you could start seeing the change you want while being outside, in nature and having fun?Doesn’t sound real does it? But that is exactly what Cathy Mahon, facilitator, coach and teacher offers at Life Lessons with Horses. She uses her knowledge of both human and equine to be most unique personal life coach in Thurston County you will ever meet.


In 1987, Cathy, who had loved horses all her life but never been on one due to fear, finally started to take riding lessons. “I absolutely loved it, even though I was terrified,” she shares. The passion she had for all things equine only grew from there as she overcame her nervousness and spent the next couple decades learning everything she could from clinics, expos, lessons, books, and videos.

“The more I rode and learned, the more I wanted to be an instructor,” Cathy says. She wanted to get a certification, to show her students that she had the knowledge and background. That was when she found Centered Riding. Centered Riding was created by Sally Swift as a way for riders to learn techniques that would improve the balance and effectiveness of the rider. “Centered Riding teaches you how to get the most out of your skeleton and muscle infrastructure and then puts you on a horse where you can incorporate that so that your horse can do their best,” she explains. As a retired physician’s assistant, Cathy has over 30 years of experience in how the body works. So, it makes sense that Centered Riding would appeal to her so much. “it was important to me to feel like what I was learning incorporated everything I had learned as a healthcare professional,” she says.

But while she was learning about Centered Riding to become an instructor, something else happened she wasn’t expecting. “I met some incredible people who taught me to be a better person,” she shares. “It was about being a centered, grounded, balanced human being. I learned that I could show people how being around horses could bring them a connection and a sense of balance and harmony in their life. That they could learn more about themselves just by hanging out with a horse. This is where I started to incorporate experiential education with horses. Being with them was a life lesson. Every moment I was with them was teaching me something about myself, how to establish boundaries, how to create connection, how to be honest, how to be trustworthy, how to communicate—all of the things you are supposed to learn as you grow up and are maturing and that many of us do not.”


“I don’t want to train horses, I don’t want to train people with horses, I want horses to teach people,” Cathy says. “I want them to share what they know because they are nature’s most honest, instinctual, and wise creatures. I want them to share their life lessons with people.” Of course, she immediately started to look for an organization where she could take this idea and learn more about it, including getting certified. That was when she found Equine Experiential Education (E3).

Equine Experiential Education (also known as Equine Assisted Learning) has been around since the late 80s, early 90s, but didn’t really become mainstream until the 2000s. Cathy has her certification through the Equine Experiential Education Association (E3A), which is an international professional membership organization offering training, certification, business development and resources for facilitators that are offering Equine Experiential Education. E3 is not the same as equine assisted therapy programs that have a mental health professional, occupational or physical therapist and a separate equine professional working together to help people address the past as part of a healing process for conditions like PTSD or or other mental and physical disabilities. Instead, E3 focuses on the present and the future – recognizing and appreciating who you are right now and what you envision for yourself going forward. Cathy is also trained as a certified professional coach and acts as equine professional, teacher and facilitator during every class.

Life Lessons with Horses

As facilitator, coach and teacher of her business Life Lessons with Horses, Cathy helps anyone looking to become more skilled in areas of their life including relationships, communication, and problem solving. You do not need to know anything about horses to take lessons, and no riding is involved, all activities are done on the ground. “I take people where they are when they come to me with the skills, talents and gifts they bring to the moment, and then we build on those,” she explains. “We address whatever is challenging them and offer them a chance to master new skills.”


Cathy does individual and group lessons. Photo courtesy: Cathy Mahon

Cathy says she works with adults, mostly women, that are looking to be their best self. In a recent lesson with a student who struggled with being assertive and decisive about what she wanted in life, Cathy set up the lesson with a horse whose temperament made it necessary for anyone working with her to be clear in their instructions, focused about where they wanted to go and persistent in their asking. During her first attempt at leading the horse, the student, filled with negative thoughts, was unable to get the horse to go. Simply by having a positive intention, while focused on her goal and repeating her requests, she got a different result and the horse walked with her on the lead line. “This is the beauty of learning by doing in experiential education with horses,” Cathy explains. “No amount of ‘talking’ about how thoughts affect our actions would have given her as powerful a life lesson-and so quickly.”

“Important to the process is recognizing and identifying the physical feelings that accompany our thoughts-to be self-aware is the beginning of real change,” she continues. “Horses make students aware of physical feelings of fear, frustration and worry as well as calm, peace and joy.” Cathy says that once students understand those feelings and how they mentally “self-talk” during times of stress and anxiety, they can learn to change the conversation within themselves to something more positive and carry that into their daily life.


Cathy is offering lessons at Healing Hearts Ranchin Olympia. You don’t need any experience with horses to be part of the programs and there is no riding. The horses are safe and very well-trained with lots of experience with people in this work. She has a new program for youth ages 10- to 14-years-old, Youth Learning Life Lessons with Horses, starting September 11 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m for six weeks. It’s a great way to get your child off the computer and away from online learning for some real-life lessons in nature. Her adult program is for anyone 16 years or older.

At Healing Hearts Ranch they comply with social distancing and mask requirements, and have hand sanitizer and wash stations available. You can learn more at the Life Lessons with Horses website. To schedule a lesson, contact Cathy at 360-430-0430 or [email protected].