By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor
To help ease female veterans back into life after deployment, Shannon Morse opened up her horse ranch to them for a warrior-worthy retreat.
Sometimes when something isn't right, the only thing to do is stomp your boots, dig in your heels, and kick up a little dirt. But when that still didn't work for Shannon Morse, a full-time firefighter with the Spokane, Wash., Fire Department and co-owner of the Cowgirl Co-op - a 70-acre historic dairy farm just outside of Spokane that is part horse ranch, part mercantile, and part events venue - she did what any cowgirl would do. She threw on her chaps, grabbed her lasso, and did it herself.
It was 2010, and the community was in the process of organizing a retreat for local soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Just one problem - the soldiers requested that the retreat be male-only.
“There were a couple of female soldiers in the unit, and they were like, ‘Well, we’re soldiers?’ But nothing was available to them,” Morse said. “When I heard about that, we had just started the Cowgirl Co-op business, so we hadn't done anything to make a dime yet. We hadn't even opened our doors. I thought it might be a bit of a stretch, but I went to my partners and said, ‘How would you like our first order of business to be something that would be good for the community, but it’s not going to make us any money? In fact, it’s going to cost us a lot.’”
Back in the Saddle
Fortunately, Morse’s co-cowgirls - Jill Smith and Louise “Lou” Ratcliffe - were just as open-minded. The three had just started the co-op as a for-profit business, with ambitions of turning the horse farm into a multipurpose ranch for everything from concerts and festivals to weekend art and gardening classes and birthday parties.
Smith runs Experience Spokane, a marketing company that highlights local small businesses, in addition to breeding Arabian racehorses, and is known as the “Clay Cowgirl” for her love of pottery. Ratcliffe, a mental-health therapist at the Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane, is called the “Cowgirl Gardener” for her half-acre garden at the co-op. She also volunteers for H.E.A.R.T. - Spokane’s Humane Evacuation Animal Rescue Team, which is where she befriended Morse. Calling herself “THE Cowgirl,” Morse trains horses (and their riders), and can lasso pretty much anything.
Together, the three embody an infectious wild-women-of-the-West attitude that makes it hard to believe there’s anything they can’t do - including launching the annual Cowgirls and Women Warriors Retreat in May 2010. Twenty-seven female veterans who had served on or supported the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, hailing mostly from Washington state, rolled up the ranch’s long, dusty road for two days of riding, bonding, and some well-deserved R&R.
“When they first arrive and they’re looking around at the other women, they’re not very trusting of them, because they don’t think that there’s other people who have walked down their path,” said Morse, adding that the soldiers don’t pay anything for the experience with the exception of their flight - and that is often sponsored by various veterans organizations and charities. “A lot of the folks who come in are somewhat disenfranchised with the military. They don’t think people appreciated their service, and they've just walked away from everything - their connections, benefits, programs, and general support.”
Part of the healing starts with what Morse and Smith know best: horses. Riding workshops and horse-therapy sessions play large roles in the retreat, with the ranch’s Cowgirl Xtreme Trail Course - a riding obstacle course of sorts - serving as a focal point. But the soldiers don’t stay put for long. Morse and the other cowgirls keep them moving from class to class throughout the day. Pottery, gardening, Dutch-oven cooking, sketching, massage, scrapbooking, journaling, fly-fishing, and even metal welding were just some of the options at this year’s retreat, which was held on May 19–21. Many of the classes are taught by renowned experts. Nance Van Winckel, an author and poet who has received two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships, taught the journaling class.
“We keep mixing it up so it’s not the same old, same old,” Morse said, “so if someone comes back for a repeat retreat they’re still getting something new.”
And come back they do. Since the first Cowgirls and Women Warriors Retreat in 2010, 25 to 30 veterans from all over the country have returned for the event each May. This year, a second mini retreat took place in October - a half-day kayak trip down the Spokane River, ending with a barbecue and bonfire back at the ranch for 15 or so local veterans. Typically, the annual May retreat also involves about 20 volunteers who do everything from teach classes and assist with the horses to provide catering and accommodations.
“By the end of the retreat, [the veterans] have someone they can talk to,” Morse said. “When you feel like you don’t have a support system, it can change your whole outlook on everything - the way you relate with your children, your husband, your friends, your family. It changes everything when you feel like there’s somebody who gets it, who gets you.”
Funding from the Wounded Warrior Project as well as donations and support from the Spokane Veterans Outreach Center, the Red Cross, and numerous local businesses help keep the retreats - now run as an official nonprofit - going and growing. “We don’t plan on getting the numbers larger, we just plan on having more,” Morse said. “That’s part of the magic of the retreat - if we get too big, then we’ll start to lose that camaraderie.”
There are nearly two million female veterans in the United States - and, according to the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, it can take up to seven years for them to become fully acclimated to civilian life after returning from deployment. The Cowgirl Co-op’s Shannon Morse says that one of the most rewarding parts of running the Cowgirls and Women Warriors Retreat is watching the change that happens in the women during the course of just a few days. “One of the neat things is they start to realize they need to reconnect,” Morse said, “that not everyone steps up and says we support you, but that there’s a greater amount of support than they initially realized.”