Spirit’s Promise Rescues Horses Who Rescue People

Horse and human at Spirit's Promise in Riverhead
At Spirit’s Promise in Riverhead
Sam Cox Photography

Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue Program was established in 2012 by Marisa Striano when she found herself at a crossroads after moving to the North Fork. Struggling through the end of a long-term career and a strained marriage, Striano threw herself into the one thing she could rely on since childhood and saddled up her first horse in 15 years, Spirit. Feeling a strong connection with his energy because he looked sad and lost, she knew at once they needed each other, and so began their journey.

Six horses later, Striano took a terrible fall off Spirit, leaving her grounded following the doctor’s orders to stay off the horse. Then something amazing happened. The very next morning, a couple appeared unannounced. Their son had taken his life a few days prior, and his biggest wish was to visit the horses of Spirit’s Promise. Striano brought them over to the herd and Big Mommie, the great-granddaughter of Seattle Slew, approached them. She realized Big Mommie identified with the soul and spirit of this woman who had just lost her son because Big Mommie had many foals taken from her as a former broodmare in the racing world.

For the next 45 minutes, Striano witnessed these two mothers mourning, offering space and support for each other’s grief. At this moment, Striano knew she was meant to help people on the ground with horses. Embracing the doctor’s words, she became a Certified Equus Life Coach, furthering her ability to help people in emotional turmoil by connecting them with a horse. However, she did not stop there and connected with Angela Byrns from East End Hospice, which launched a unique partnership, working through grief with horses.

During a recent visit to her rescue, Striano spoke more about her experiences with grief and horses.

Marisa Striano, Spirit's Promise
Marisa Striano, Spirit’s PromiseSam Cox Photography

Why specialize in grief?

I started noticing how I reacted to different experiences that represented loss. My two divorces totally changed me because I had become a mother of two after my first marriage, and I moved to Long Island during the second marriage. I experienced immense loneliness through these divorces, navigating the loss of a partner two times over. I realized grief is not only about the loss of a person but also about the loss of a life I thought I was going to have.

I started connecting with people in grief more and found I could relate to someone experiencing everything that was supposed to go right, take a hard left and then make a left again and then go down a dark alley, down a hole, through a tunnel and back up again. So many emotions are attached to grief as you’re searching to get out. You go through anger, anxiety, depression, or even motivation because you don’t want to be in your head, so you drop into your body. No matter what, grief changes everything, and I’m drawn to helping people find peace through that journey.

Horses help children and adults at Spirit's Promise
Horses help children and adults at Spirit’s PromiseSam Cox Photography

How does Equus Life Coaching work?

I’ll give you an example. In one session, I was working with a woman I’d known for many years, and her son, who I learned was an addict struggling in his recovery. I told him we were going to begin by grooming Heartbreaker because my philosophy is you start in grief by being vulnerable and letting down the walls. I knew if Heartbreaker would let someone touch her mane, she needed to sense a mutual vulnerability.

Once Heartbreaker and the son were in the round pen, she put her head on his shoulder, nuzzling him. When he sat in the middle of the ring, she stood over him. You could see how Heartbreaker felt safe and, according to Striano, was conveying, “I know who you are. I know you’re broken. And I know you’re grieving.” Suddenly, he began sharing how he thought he’d be a good son, a productive member of society, find a wife, and have children, but it wasn’t turning out that way. There was an undercurrent of anger and disillusionment while he relaxed into his truth. His heartbeat synched with Heartbreaker’s as she welcomed him into the herd. He then asked his mom to step in to experience this peace.

Horses at Spirit's Promise
Horses at Spirit’s PromiseSam Cox Photography

As soon as she stepped into the round pen, Heartbreaker moved to the opposite side, snorting, and took off running in circles so fast she slid into the kick plate of the round pen. I’m watching Heartbreaker as she desperately tried moving away from her energy, sensing an incongruity. I turned to the mom, saying, “Wow, you’re really angry.” Her son responded, “Oh yeah, she’s angry. But she hides behind God.” I told them, “I don’t think she’s hiding behind God. I think she means to say, ‘I need God to get through the day because I am angry.’”

Trauma is covered by scar tissue and cobwebs. Then it’s triggered or appears when a horse holds a mirror up and says, “Nice try. You can hide all you want, but I know who you are.” The horse tells me who you are before you do. I never would’ve gotten there with the mother and son if I didn’t have Heartbreaker with me.

What makes your partnership with East End Hospice unique?

We have grief-specific groups running for six weeks each. We learned quickly you can’t put a person who loses their 96-year-old mother with someone who loses their 17-year-old daughter. Grief is not just grief, but grief of any kind is incredibly isolating.

Spirit's Promise
Spirit’s PromiseSam Cox Photography

Sessions are designed for group members to experience connection through grief. We do an exercise called Horse in a Box, where the horse represents grief, and the box represents where you put your grief for the day. The group works together moving the horse by lifting their energy, then having someone give direction to turn the horse and someone else keeping the horse in the box. It’s a team effort of moving grief. Grief will always be there, even in 20 years, with a familiar scent or song. So the box becomes the place where the grief will be, even on days when it’s a steamer trunk filled with pain too heavy to carry, so you just have to lay beside it. Our partnership with East End Hospice pairs the training of licensed social workers with the power of healing through the herd. Once someone experiences it, it can’t be unfelt.

Spirit’s Promise is located at Blossom Hollow Ranch on Sound Avenue (2746) in Riverhead and is home to rescued horses and chickens, ducks, goats, pigs and even cows. It’s run by a handful of staff and over 60 volunteers.

On April 30, they will be hosting the grand opening of their 70-foot indoor round pen, built in honor of a lost loved one of a family who found them through East End Hospice. This event is open to the public, inviting the community to experience the power of the herd. This round pen is the first of its kind on Long Island, allowing Spirit’s Promise to offer one-on-one and group sessions no matter the weather. What a sanctuary of healing Spirit’s Promise has become for both animals and humans alike.

To learn more about Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue Program at Blossom Hollow Ranch, visit spiritspromise.com or call 631-875-0433.

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