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At Arizona's Miraval spa, visitor's first time is a charm

Miraval, a posh spa near Tucson, aims to restore body and soul with yoga, horsemanship and other activities.

By John Muncie

Special to the Los Angeles Times

December 4, 2011

Reporting from Catalina, Ariz.

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Elvis was not cooperating.

I wanted to raise his back left leg and clean his hoof. Elvis wanted to be left alone. I pinched, prodded and pulled. Elvis remained as rigid as a carousel charger.

"Do you rely on charming people?" asked Wyatt Webb, a beefy, bearded, cowboy-therapist who was monitoring my futility.

Huh? Sure. I guess so.

"Charm's not going to work on a horse," he said. "Stop thinking, and commit to what you're going to do. Walk purposely to him. The last step same as the first."

The setting for this lesson in horsemanship was a dusty paddock at Miraval, a luxurious adventure spa outside Tucson. Restoring your mind and soul as well as your body is Miraval's philosophy. So, along with the usual massages, facials and Zumba dance classes, you can book a shamanic healing (complete with drumming and acupuncture), practice Chi Gong, experience a Shuniya sound ceremony, learn the art of guided imagery and have a horse enhance your self-esteem.

Miraval lies in the boulder- and saguaro-strewn foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, 25 miles north of the city. Along with treats such as smoothies and suspiciously caloric cookies, the spa's central Palm Court features sign-up sheets for power walking, yoga, bird watching, nature photography, drumming, mountain biking and other activities.

In keeping with its self-discovery theme, the spa also offers climbing/jumping/high-wire activities designed to help you embrace your fears. Their titles give you the acrobatic flavor: "Desert Sky Zipline," "Desert Tightrope," "Quantum Leap," "Giant's Ladder" and "Swing and a Prayer."

However, Miraval's signature confidence builder is the Equine Experience program, which brings me back to the charm-resistant Elvis, a 19-year-old gelding of dubious breeding.

Elvis is one of 14 horses at Miraval's three-acre Purple Sage Ranch.

The equine program, which has been part of the spa since it opened in 1996, includes the three-hour Experience, the all-day Immersion and private trail rides. It's run by Webb and a staff of three cowgirls.

According to Miraval, the Equine Experience will "challenge learned behaviors, correct false beliefs" and allow you to "rediscover your authentic self." If you can deal successfully with a 1,200-pound animal, the idea goes, you can learn to tap into hidden stores of self-confidence, overcome fear and take charge. All in an afternoon.

I didn't know how to judge the Experience experience on my own, so I brought along a ringer: my wife, Jody Jaffe. It's impolite to note how many years Jody has been around horses. Let's just say it predates Watergate.

We live on a 50-acre farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley with a five-stall barn, a riding ring and eight horses. Jody is in heaven; I throw them hay.

The Experience started with a 15-minute dissertation from Webb about fears, self-doubts and how a horse can help. Webb, 68, has been a therapist for 30 years, and he sprinkled his talk with pop-psychology phrases. "Life's not coming at you; life is coming from you." "If you're feeling afraid, just say no." "Asking for help is the difference between comfort and misery."

Then it was cowboy time. We entered a paddock where four horses were tethered: Elvis, Tuffy, Wynn and Taco Joe. The eight guests were divided into teams of two, and Webb's assistant, Carolyn Knowlton, demonstrated how to brush a horse and how to lift its hoof to be cleaned with a small iron pick. "Bend at the waist, don't bend at the knees," she said. Then she showed us how to walk a horse around the paddock.

When it was our turn, Jody, the ringer, went through the routine in seconds. She does this every day. I don't. Still, once I stopped being charming, everything ran smoothly. I approached Elvis like a linebacker heading for Tim Tebow. Elvis picked up his hooves as ordered and docilely let me lead him around the corral.

What's routine for the Ringer, however, wasn't for others. "I did it! I did it!" Keely Cawley said as she got Tuffy to agree to his hoof-cleaning. Cawley, a thirtysomething mom from Dallas, was bucked off and trampled by a horse when she was 16. "I've been scared ever since," she said.

When Tuffy didn't lift his hoof, Cawley decided to put her foot down and show "who was boss." "I went back with that mentality," she said, grinning widely, "and it made me and Tuffy more at ease."

Purple Sage Ranch is about half a mile from the spa's main 400-acre grounds. Although suburban sprawl is intruding on the local landscape, the area still has an austere Sonoran desert beauty. A covey of quail tip-toed through the paddocks during our Experience; a couple of days later, a clan of javelinas nosed around the agave plants by our room.

Desert birds fluttered about the mesquite trees that shaded the pathways between buildings.

The place has a restorative calm. Cellphones are forbidden in most public areas; there's no piped-in music. Many classes are held outdoors; for one late-morning Chi Gong session, we gathered on a patio where we made slow, reaching movements toward the Santa Catalinas, the spa's monumental, 9,000-foot backdrop.

Miraval's 117 rooms are grouped in six clusters of desert-toned casitas. There are three pools, various exercise rooms and indoor and outdoor spas. The Catalina Center features meeting rooms, the Brave Bull Lounge (care for a prickly pear Lemon Drop martini?) and a dining hall.

We were here in mid-winter, when daytime temperatures were routinely in the 70s, and the outdoor patio was packed at lunchtime. This was our third adventure spa, and the menus here were uncategorically the best.

There's spa food, and then there's corn-bread-stuffed quail and smoked wild salmon carpaccio. A wine list came with dinner. Jody later complained, "Who goes to a spa and gains weight?"

The final part of our Equine Experience was in a tent-covered round corral. The idea was to make a horse mind just by using body language. Star of the show? Elvis, of course.

Knowlton began her demonstration by walking toward him. As she did, Elvis started to walk around the perimeter of the corral. Then she made him reverse course. She carried a 5-foot whip but never waved it around or touched him with it. Finally, she stopped and Elvis, right on cue, did too.

"Wow, that's amazing," said somebody in the group, speaking for all of us.

All except the Ringer. When it was Jody's turn, she put aside the whip and put Elvis through his paces unaided. Walk, trot, canter, gallop.

Clockwise, counterclockwise, clockwise again. She stopped; Elvis stopped. When she was done, she stood in the center of the corral with her back to him. Elvis walked up to her and nuzzled her neck. Magic.

"Not really," she told me later. "It's just basic round pen work. But that said, making a horse do your bidding empowers people. That's why therapeutic riding programs work."

It's doubtful that the Ringer gained self-esteem from the Experience, but others were energized by their encounter with Elvis. "He was so beautiful," said 43-year-old Debbie Wolpov from New Jersey, sounding like a groupie. "He just spoke to you; he was inviting."

Cawley called it "euphoric." "It's completely changed my outlook on horses," she said. "To be able to not have that fear is a really cool thing."

And me? Well, I don't know if I discovered my authentic self that afternoon, but I did work up an appetite for grass-fed sirloin carne asada that night.

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