Shangrila Therapy

In graduate school I learned about various therapies: Gestalt, Solution-Focused, Cognitive Behavioral, and many more. All of them offer paths to mental and emotional healing, but I personally subscribe to Shangrila Therapy.

According to this counseling theory, the client achieves tranquility by visiting Shangrila Guest Ranch in southern Virginia. Trail riding, happy kids, home-cooked meals, kind-hearted hosts, porch-front conversations, and nightly bonfires are all part of the therapeutic regimen.

After a tough spring semester, I drove to Cluster Springs, Virginia, for some weekend Shangrila Therapy. Gary and Julie Holmes, who started the business ten years ago, welcomed me warmly while their son Dillon said in his charmingly direct way,  “I was wondering if you brought me a present.” I always bring something four-wheeled for him, and he always thanks me profusely.

Dillon and Gary in their beloved Gator

I met Casey, the new 23-year-old ranch hand, who grew up in New York City and graduated from DePaul University. She’s a certified EAGALA equine specialist, a former western dude ranch employee, and Gary’s fellow business planner. She arrived at Shangrila in March and has already acquired a lanky country suitor. By the next time I visit, I expect she’ll be chewing tobacco and driving her own pickup truck.

Casey and her horse Mickey

Casey has taken on an unschooled paint gelding, Mickey, who has some fears about leading. I foolishly thought I might be able to help; I sat out a few of his emphatic bucks before I bailed. “I think he needs pretty intensive training to get over his fears,” I said, wishing I could pull James and Kate out of my back pocket. We’re working on the next best thing: a Cooler Horsemanship clinic to be held at Shangrila in August.

Gary proudly showed me the house he built singlehandedly from the ruins of an old cabin. Casey will move into the new place as soon it’s done: she calls it her “Barbie dream house.” It has a sleeping loft with antique pine boards and windows that open onto horse stalls. You won’t find that in New York City.

Casey’s dream house

The weekend marked a significant occasion: Melody, Gary and Julie’s one-year-old daughter, took her first trail ride. She and Julie rode Bess, an easygoing, sure-footed mule. Every time I looked back, Melody was smiling, her curls bouncing in time to Bess’s steps.

Melody and Julie on Bess

Setting off on a trail ride with Gary and Dillon in front; Thunder (in the pasture) wants to come along

I stayed in the Old Home Place, a farmstead built in 1801. Here are some views from it:

And here’s a glimpse of the fishing pond, which lies just beyond the barns:

I rode Bandit, a super-sensitive spotted walking horse, with a rope halter and reins after teaching him how to laterally flex his neck and disengage his hindquarters. He caught on quickly and seemed relaxed without a bit.


Here is Gary’s horse, Timber, who came to the fence and posed regally for photos. I half expected him to offer his autograph.


Leaving Shangrila is always hard, but the therapy I’ve received makes the transition easier. I’ll be back for the Cooler Horsemanship clinic in August, this time with Mystic in tow.

Yes, Dillon, I’ll bring you a present.

Cluster Springs hayfield glimpsed on the way home


3 thoughts on “Shangrila Therapy

  1. How beautiful! I don’t know how just being there couldn’t cure just about anything and anyone! Something about horses, the smells, the quiet, the shades of green….it’s all good it’s all soothing! What a great pond to do a Sun Salutation every morning! Thanks for sharing!!

  2. My dear friend and I were just there about a month ago, and found it to be a little slice of heaven:0). Gary and Julie’s hospitality was unsurpassed, and Casey was infinitely interesting and attentive. We will definitely be going back to that place which we will never forget!

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