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Cowgirls vs Cancer

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Yoga, horses and camaraderie help cancer survivors grow strong again
By Emily Stifler

SHIELDS VALLEY – Kelly Hahn soaked in the smell of the pines and the mountain view, and she felt the horse move beneath her.

Hahn was treated for breast cancer in 2005, and then again five years later. She came to Montana from Maryland in July 2011 on a scholarship with Big Sky Yoga’s Cowgirls versus Cancer (pictured below).

“It was a transformative experience,” Hahn said. “I still keep a little bit of that with me. When I need to go to a happy place, that’s what I go to. I revert back to that day, that ride, that experience.”

Now in its third year, the program provided scholarships for eight breast cancer survivors this summer. The four-day retreat at the Double T River Ranch in Clyde Park leads women in yoga, horseback riding and healthy living.

The three focuses—yoga, horses and eating—bring out many components of healing, says owner and lead yoga instructor Margaret Burns Vap.

Yoga, horseback riding and eating well all make the women physically stronger. The chef, who is also a farmer, teaches participants about eating locally sourced, sustainable food, no matter where they live.

And there’s an emotional component.

“If you’re around a horse and are angry or are covering something up, it won’t work,” Burns Vap says. “Horses are intuitive and won’t put up with emotional incongruities.”

She encourages the women to address their emotions during yoga practice, and says the horses bring out a lot.

“We get a lot of crying. We like to think of it as a big healing release,” Burns Vap says.

The camaraderie is also powerful. When Kelly Hahn and another cancer survivor talked about their experiences on a trail ride, they found a lot in common emotionally.

“It made me feel better that someone else was there who understood me to that degree,” Hahn said. They commiserated, but they also had a lot of laughs and fun, Hahn says, and still keep in touch.

For Burns Vap, who runs yoga retreats year-round, being able to give back is important, but she can’t do it alone.

The Double T River Ranch donates the facility for the retreat, which makes the whole thing possible. Others, like the personal chef and the horseback riding instructor, also donate their time.

And it’s all worth it.

“These women are determined to get strong. Some of us who are healthy complain about dragging ourselves through the motions, but we really have no idea what it’s like to want to feel normal again,” Burns Vap says. “To see them surpass that hurdle is pretty cool. It’s inspiring.”

Yoga and outdoor fitness in Big Sky country

The Bozeman-based Big Sky Yoga runs yoga retreats year-round. With a focus in whole wellness, owner Margaret Burns Vap incorporates activities like hiking, nordic skiing, horseback riding, tea making and cooking lessons.

“The idea is that yoga helps you do other things better, like riding or hiking. A yoga practice helps you increase your body awareness and mental clarity,” Burns Vap says.

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