By Laine Bergeson
Six years ago, Lisa Arie, an accomplished New York advertising executive and businesswoman, had an “aha” moment on the streets of Manhattan. Shortly afterward, she traded in her high-powered career and opened Vista Caballo, a self-directed discovery center in the Great Sage Plains of Colorado. Located on 160 remote acres, Vista Caballo is described as a place “where visionaries and creative thinkers can reclaim the parts of themselves that have been lost on the road to success.” Experience Life Senior Editor Laine Bergeson spoke by phone with Arie at her Colorado retreat about the change of heart that changed everything for her.
Experience Life: What triggered your decision to leave New York City and to take on something so completely different?
LA: I had an acclaimed career in advertising and then I started two successful businesses of my own. Outwardly, it was the American dream. But inside, I still didn’t feel satisfied or connected. I got to a place where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve done this. Now what?’ But there were so many fascinating distractions that kept me in the game. Finally, one day, I was walking down the streets of New York and I just stopped on the sidewalk and burst into tears. I said, ‘This is not it. This can’t be it.’ I had this stark realization that if I didn’t do something more meaningful, I might reach the end of my life as an outwardly luxurious but inwardly empty shell. I didn’t want to live that way.
EL: You say that a little brown horse saved you. How so?
LA: When I had my moment on the sidewalk, I felt like I wanted to do something connected with nature and something with horses, which didn’t make any sense. I didn’t grow up with horses. I was in the middle of Manhattan. But when our heart speaks, it’s not logical. As luck would have it, there was a place to take a riding lesson right in Manhattan, and being on the horse felt incredible. That’s when I realized how numb I had become. I had this very visceral waking-up experience. Following this, I went out to Colorado for this weeklong retreat at an international equine study center and met the little brown horse. I didn’t know much more besides how good it felt to hug her and walk around with her. I didn’t know how to respond to her in the ‘expected’ way. We were like two complete strangers getting to know each other. Our only commonality was our complete lack of familiarity with each other. I think the magic happened because there was no set context for either one of us, and because there was no context or clear expectation, the real me started showing up. And when I started really showing up, the horse started responding positively. And my heart started to beat again.
I knew then that I had found how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. It took me a few years to put an exit strategy into place, and it was a tough decision in some ways, because my work — and my life around my work — was all I knew. But everything kept falling into place after I made the decision, and I took that as a testament to the fact that I’d made the right choice.
EL: Describe Vista Caballo.
LA: Vista Caballo is my home. It’s my sanctuary, it’s my think tank, and it’s a place where people can come to discover their authentic selves. My call and my invitation with Vista is: ‘Don’t label it.’ Feel it. A lot of people who come here will literally say, ‘It just felt right.’ This is not equine therapy. Really, what this place is all about is how to expand into more of life. How to truly connect with your experience of life.
EL: Is helping others a skill you were aware you had and wanted to use?
LA: Yes, although I’d never done it in this way. The greatest joy I experienced in running my companies was helping others develop. That was my pride and joy.
EL: You wrote a short book about your decision to open Vista Caballo called Crossing the Silly Bridge. Where did you get the title?
LA: There was a wonderful instructor at the international equine center and she said the phrase one day. I don’t remember the context in which she used it, but it stuck in my head. To me, it really articulated the belief so many of us have that when we traverse toward a place in life and cross that metaphoric bridge, we will have arrived. But the secret is: There is no bridge. There is no crossing. We’re here. This is it. And when we allow ourselves to know that, and decide to live that way, we can see just how silly the things we distract ourselves with really are.
EL: What is it about horses, specifically, that can help us see our authentic selves?
LA: Horses reflect what we hide — from ourselves and from others. You can’t hide from them what you are really feeling inside. If your insides and your outsides don’t match up, they can ‘read’ that and they won’t fully connect with you. Horses are prey animals — masters of reading their environments and everything in it — which now includes you. One woman came to Vista Caballo and tried to get close to one of our horses, but the horse kept her distance. This raised quite a bit of emotion in the woman because it reflected the current relationships she had with people. But as she allowed her true feelings to surface, those of anger and sadness about people being standoffish, the horse came over to her and made contact. As she allowed the facade that everything was OK to drop, she became real and the horse could then connect. Horses respond to congruency. And when you feel how good it feels to be congruent, you want to stay that way. You’ll hide less from yourself and others.
EL: How can people begin this sort of exploration if they don’t have a horse?
LA: There are an infinite number of portals out there. Everyone has their own version of what the horse was for me. Listen to your instincts and then take a chance and follow them. Start small until you build or rebuild your trust in them. It sounds simple — and, of course, the best things in life still are.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Experience Life.