“Western Skies Women’s Retreat”
by Kelly Fenstermaker

West Texas.  Wherever you live, it’s probably not going to be near by, but if you visit, it’s well worth the drive.
What you’ll find at the ranch, located in the foothills of the Davis Mountains, is a complete equine center, with a 200 foot covered arena, and a charming adobe bunkhouse for guests, equipped with a modern kitchen. In spacious paddocks adjacent to the barn, palomino, black, bay, grey and paint horses graze contentedly. Up on the hill stands the main ranch house.  This complex is the creation of KateVigneron, who not that many years ago, traded an elegant home in Paris for the rugged expanse of West Texas.

Trail ride in mountains -  A smooth ride on gaited horses

Last March I was able to experience the beauty and wonder of this place at the Western Skies Women’s Retreat, put on by Vingeron, and limited to six women.  The guests included Ulrike and her cousin, Christina, from Germany, another Kate, Becky and Stacy.  Diane Indorf, from Fort Stockton, had been invited to give Tai Chi instruction, and Ellen Weinacht, who lives on a ranch nearby, masterfully prepared all of our meals.  
We arrived late Thursday afternoon and left, reluctantly, after lunch on Sunday.  It was one of the most enchanting long weekends I have ever spent.
 For starters, Madera Hills Ranch, itself, is magic.  Its feels good just be on the land, tucked among rolling hills with spectacular views of distant mountain ranges.  Some people might even call it a “Power Spot.”  
Then, there are the Tennessee Walking Horses, 21 of them at last count, that Vigneron raises, trains and sells.  Of course we got to ride them.  
 Vigneron, a certified Alexander practitioner, gave us Alexander lessons on and off horseback.  Although she is not a certified riding instructor, she has found that teaching balance through body awareness can be part of her guests’ riding experience. She practices natural horsemanship, based on Pat Parelli seminars she has attended, and instruction from Jean Olsen, a veteran horsewoman who lives in nearby Pecos.
Every morning, we walked from the bunkhouse were we lodged, up the hill to the main house for breakfast. The house is made of pressed mud, with a stucco exterior.  High ceilings lend an open, airy feeling and Oriental and Indian rugs add rich texture to the tile floors.  French doors on both sides open onto wide verandas where we took most of our meals, wonderfully prepared by Ellen. Gaudy red and yellow Birds of Paradise surrounded the veranda, adding a colorful south-of-the border look.
Friday, our first full day, we had individual Alexander lessons with Vigneron at the house.  Part of the time, she has you sit on a stool, while she places one hand on your forehead, with the other on the neck under skull, and gently guides the body into alignment and then up to a standing position.  This and other movements are repeated a number of times.  Then you walk and notice the change.  Vignerons’ ministrations seemed much too subtle to work, but the effect was dramatic.  After I had been worked on, my body felt lighter, taller and stress-free.  “Alexander is going in the direction nature wants it to go,” Vigneron said. “It is different from any other body work technique because you undo rather than do.”
The Alexander Method applies to any type of movement, from washing the dishes or dancing, to playing a musical instrument or working at a computer.  For example, I learned to pick up a heavy saddle without straining the muscles in my back
The rest of the day was spent in Tai Chi class with Diane, a veteran martial artist, hiking on a nature trail, and working on our journals that we had been given earlier.  There was also time for just hanging out and visiting the horses, which trotted up and reached over the fence for pats.  
Saturday morning, we woke to discover a newly born foal in the pen just outside the bunkhouse.  The sire was Gold, a magnificent palomino stallion.  He had been pacing and whinnying in a nearby corral all night.  We clustered around the fence and watched fascinated, as the little blonde fellow struggled to his feet and finally connected with his first meal.  The mare, a beautiful black creature with luxurious mane and tail, nuzzled him gently.
After breakfast, we met at the barn and got ready for Alexander work on horseback.  Vigeron is able to perceive the body’s alignment as few can.  As I rode around the arena, she pointed out that I was bracing in the stirrup with my left leg, which pushed me over to the other side of the saddle.  Tilting to one side had been a problem for years, but I had never figured out the real cause, nor had any riding instructor.  Kate showed me how to place my pelvis and relax the muscles in the neck, back and down the left leg.  This gave me a better seat and allowed my leg to softly drape along the horse’s side instead of pushing stiffly in the stirrup.  It’s a tool with which I still work and as a result, continue to improve my balance.
Two of the women were complete novices at riding and one was even afraid of horses.  Vigneron gave them each a horse and let them stand beside it and pet it.  When they felt comfortable with this, she helped them mount.  They rode bareback in order to better feel the motion of the animal.  Vigneron and Jose, who helps her with training and takes care of the barn, carefully led the riders around the pen.  They loved it.
The more experienced riders went out into the hills for a trail ride.  I rode Magnolia, a lovely palomino who sailed along in a smooth four beat walk, swiftly covering the rocky ground.  The novice riders followed in the truck with Jose and we met for a tail gate picnic atop a hill overlooking much of the ranch and surrounding mountain ranges.  We sat in the shade of a cottonwood tree growing next to a large stone water tank where the horses took long drinks.
When we returned, Ulrike, who rode Shane, another palomino, was estatic.  “Kate helped me lengthen my back and to push into my knees rather than weighting my toes in the stirrups,” she said.  “For the first time ever, I have no soreness I my knees.  Riding a gaited horse helps, too.”
 In the afternoon, we met with Diane for another Tai Chi lesson.  Tai Chi, as well as Alexander, is an excellent means of developing balance, strength and agility, what every horsewoman strives for.  After an intensive warm-up, we practiced the Tai Chi Walk, slow and fluid, at least that’s the way Diane did it.  The rest of us struggled to imitate her, giggling at our mistakes.
Diane had brought plans to build a labyrinth, and as the sun began to sink below the mountains, we set to laying it out in front of the house, marking the path with stones. ”Walking the labyrinth is very serene, and the site is perfect,” said Kate (the guest). Ellen compared the labyrinth walk to life. “In life you don’t know where you’re going.  All the weaving in and out of the labyrinth symbolizes that.”
At about ten o’clock, I dropped into bed, totally worn out, but couldn’t sleep.  A soft hum of voices coming from the other end of the bunk house drew me into the kitchen.  Stumbling into the light, I found three of our group sitting at the table, snacking on bowls of cereal and painting in their journals with a set of water colors.  I whipped out my own journal, and we talked, laughed and spread color on our pages until it was impossible to keep our eyes open a moment longer.
Sunday, the last morning, we gathered around the base of the stone veranda for a group picture. Ironically, one of the women who came from the city and feared encountering snakes in the country, was the one to nearly step on a baby rattlesnake as it slithered out from the rocks.  Vigneron quickly dispatched it, and the photo session resumed.
After lunch, we shared our thoughts and what we had written and painted in our journals over the last three days. “It has been a capsule in time that was absolutely perfect,” was one comment.  “I feel safe here, cozy, taken care of,” was another.  
No one wanted to leave.  It had been a time of learning and sharing, in a place we would never forget.  We had become an intimate group, women who wanted to continue being friends.  Vigneron promised to hold more retreats, the next one being this November 3, 4 and 5th.  By that time, she will have attended an Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy seminar with Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus.  She expects bring some new and exciting skills to the next retreat.
At last we broke up, traded addresses and hugs, and headed for our cars.  There wasn’t a dry eye among us.
 For more information about Madera Hills Ranch and the next Western Skies Women’s Retreat :
 Visit their website at maderahillsranch.com or email info@maderahillsranch.com

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