One of our dedicated Natural Lifemanship practitioners, Sarah Willeman Doran, recently authored a chapter in the new book, Integrating Horses into Healing that details her transformational healing journey with horses and specifically, her transformational experience with Natural Lifemanship.
As a Dually Advanced Certified NL Practitioner and Equine Professional (Advanced NLC-P,EP), Sarah embodies our mission at Natural Lifemanship and we’re excited to share a brief recap of what she shared about NL. To read the full chapter and other life changing stories of healing and transformation, get the book here: Integrating Horses into Healing.
A Fallen Star
Sarah’s relationship with horses begins in the competitive world of showjumping. At a young age, she was competing at the Grand Prix level and was seen as a rising star in the sport. She knew how to get the most out of her horses and saw great success early on. There was no telling how far she could go.
But behind the scenes, Sarah had faced abuse from one of her coaches. She’d suppressed her trauma to continue to perform in the sport she loved, and didn’t realize until far later how damaging this was.
Sarah’s meteoric rise in Grand Prix jumping would come to an abrupt end following traumatic riding injuries. She would eventually recover to win an intercollegiate individual national championship riding for Stanford University, but would never be able to return to a Grand Prix jumping level, and stepped out of competitive horse jumping.
But her journey with horses would eventually take a new path. .
A New Beginning
Following early retirement from competitive riding, Sarah shifted her focus to developing young horses. At the same time, she was also walking the path of personal growth and deep healing.
When Sarah came across the Fundamentals of NL and the Fundamentals Practicum, her relationship with trauma was changed forever. She found a new understanding of how trauma affects the nervous system, opening the way to greater self-compassion and healing.
“The NL model gave me a chance to work through nervous-system activation ‘in the field,’ which can create a more embodied and deeper experience than an office setting provides,” Sarah writes.
Finding early success with the Fundamentals of NL, Sarah went on to do a series of therapy intensives with her Natural Lifemanship therapist, each lasting three to four days.
“We processed a series of traumatic memories, and I truly felt my sense of them shift. It’s not that I’ve forgotten any of what happened, but now I can think of those things without feeling a jolt through my body,” Sarah explains.
Sarah’s third intensive session was her breakthrough moment, which she described as “coming out of a fog.” Finally able to process her trauma and have a deeper connection with her inner being, she gained the strength and wisdom to make positive changes in her life.
The Natural Lifemanship Institute offers Transformative Training
As Sarah continued to take NL courses for her own growth and her work with clients, she explained, “For me, at the trainings, some of my most powerful growth experiences were not even about the work with the horses. Rather, certain interpersonal moments were what the field of psychology calls ‘corrective emotional experiences.’ These were moments when I felt truly seen and cared for, when trainers recognized my needs and practiced one of the core NL principles: making sure not to take away the other’s sense of choice.” The following story is about one of these moments at an Intensive Practicum.
Sarah describes working with the paint horse she’d been partnered with: “It felt satisfying, as we practiced various ways of moving together in the pen and went on to haltering with connection. I later learned the owner said he was head shy, but at the time, our connection had evolved enough that he would move his nose toward the halter and stay relaxed as I brought it over his ears.” It was in one of these moments of quiet connection that a sudden burst of wind and rain swept through the arena. In a split second the horse lost awareness of Sarah, and she narrowly dodged him as he swung his head and took off.
When Sarah returned to the horse, he was agitated, running from one side of the pen to the other, unable to calm down. When she asked for his attention, he would buck and kick at her, at close range.
“I was still focused enough on performing well and pleasing others that I persisted in the pen to a point of complete exhaustion, trying in vain to raise my energy and bring the horse’s attention back to me, to help him connect and calm down,” Sarah said. “By the time I told one of the trainers that I was too exhausted to make any progress, I was in a state of nervous-system freeze that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It felt familiar. . . I was afraid to tell anyone the extent of what I was feeling, and as usual, I looked basically fine from the outside. I had learned, through many years, how to keep going through these things and not reveal what was happening inside.”
Sarah was worried about going back to training the next day. With her nervous system in overwhelm, she didn’t feel she’d be able to work with the horse safely if he was still dysregulated and aggressive.
“When I arrived, I asked one of the trainers if we could speak privately. When westepped aside from the group, I couldn’t stop the tears, and I felt ashamed. I told her what I was going through, and also that I was worried about letting the trainers down. What happened next felt like a miracle to me: she listened with total kindness and without judgment; she expressed the trainers’ full confidence in my abilities with the horses; and she said I did not have to work with the horse if it didn’t feel safe.”
Sarah tried to work with the horse again, but he was still in an agitated state, and Sarah was still triggered. She was used to being the tough horsewoman from her competitive days and tried to persist at first, but was quickly faced with a fork in the road. Should she continue to hang on to this persistence that made her successful in the competitive world, or was it time to let go and do what was best for her well-being?
Sarah, with the help of her NL trainer, decided to let go.
“This was an empowering turning point. At the time, in my evolution as a person, what I needed most was to choose to put my well-being first. Not only to choose that but to be supported in that choice. To see and feel that my safety mattered, that taking care of myself was not a cause for rejection or abuse of any kind, but rather led to an experience of safety,” Sarah said. “This is what the NL trainer provided that day. She sat with me beside the pen, supporting me in my decision. . . this was a transformative experience of expressing a boundary around my safety and well-being and having it honored.”
Sarah learned more than just how to let go that day. As someone who’d experienced multiple forms of trauma in her youth, it had been difficult for her to express and uphold boundaries. She had been in relationships where boundaries were violated, and hadn’t known how to break the cycle.
At that moment, she was able to make a new choice.
“As we heal, the choices in relationships become much clearer. If we express our boundaries clearly and repeatedly and someone still can’t honor them, the relationship isn’t healthy,” Sarah explains. “At that point, we can either attempt stronger ways to make our request, or we can choose to end the relationship.” That day, Sarah chose to end the relationship knowing that it wasn’t healthy to push herself to work with this horse.
She called this moment a fundamental shift and a vital one for her own healing journey.
The ripple effect of healing
“Learning and practicing Natural Lifemanship changes the way we live. When we improve our relationships, the healing effect ripples outward through those around us. The more we heal ourselves, the more powerfully we can help clients,” she said.
Like many healing journeys, Sarah’s has been long and painful. However, it has also been deeply rewarding. With the transformation she experienced through her Natural Lifemanship training and therapy, Sarah has seen long-term tangible benefits in her life.
With a healthier and renewed nervous system, her baseline state has transformed from stress into wellness. She no longer lives with chronic pain, she feels at home in her own body, and she’s able to build the kind of healthy, connected relationships that bring the greatest sense of meaning in her life.
Sarah is now a certified life coach and a mindfulness meditation teacher. She is building her own Natural Lifemanship practice in Colorado, with plans to open a retreat center in the mountains.
Sarah is also an author, and you are sure to enjoy her writing. Here are some articles that focus on NL specifically:
Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, Part 1
Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, Part 2
The Healing Power of Connection
Building Connected Relationships
Begin Your Own Healing Journey Today
We couldn’t be more grateful to Sarah for sharing her journey of transformation with Natural Lifemanship. The beginning of Sarah’s journey is like so many for our NL community – it all begins with the Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship.
If you’re ready to learn the principles of Natural Lifemanship, join us for this life-changing training.