Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Oaks at Ojai

Ojai is a special place in Southern California with an earthy, artsy, authentic vibe. So it only fits that The Oaks at Ojai should reflect the same image as a spa destination. Which it does. If you're looking for upscale modern with austere and ultra luxury appointments, skip The Oaks. This place is down to earth, earnest, and honest in its goals to help you achieve yours. A taste of Old California only adds to the charm.

My daughters took me for a weekend retreat in August to celebrate a big birthday with healthy meals, workout classes, hikes, and mother-daughter bonding. From the moment we pulled off the highway, cruised onto the covered driveway, and walked through the double door entry, the ambience of Old California greeted us in the nostalgic style of Spanish stucco architecture. 

Inside, the lobby spreads across a wide expanse of carpet where cushioned couches and a wood-framed upholstered chair perch aside a dark coffee table straight from the pages of Ramona. Flower arrangements decorate smaller tables, and a generous stucco and stone fireplace trimmed in Spanish tile complete the cozy sitting area. Off to the right, an antique-inspired wood counter serves as the check-in desk while a gift shop called The Nest with an arch-tiled entryway beckons on the left. Hallways with mission inspired arches lead to a gallery of stone sculptures and wall paintings straight ahead and to spa services and a comfy relaxation room behind the shop. An office and health center off the main lobby offer easy access for guests to approach staff ready to monitor blood pressure and weight during your stay.

From the side hallway off the lobby, we climbed stairs to reach our second floor corner room awash in light. The spacious location was a plus. The bathroom tile in black and white hexagons trimmed in 50's garish green reminded me of an early 70s apartment in Chicago. A small deck overlooking a side street of town gave us a view of locals. Paned windows on the front overlooked the main street where dozens of shop and gallery windows greeted us on an early morning walk. Two double beds and a rollaway bed fit with room to spare. The older bathroom design with a bathtub/shower combo, but only enough counter space for two sets of toiletries, sufficed since Betsy's cosmetic bag with its handy hook was perfect for hanging. 

We found all the food quite good, sans salt and sugar, but with substitutes that worked well enough, except when it came to popcorn. There is no sufficient replacement for real butter and salt to satisfy the crunchy taste of well seasoned popcorn! Regardless, I somehow ate a whole bag during bingo, which awarded two of the three of us with winning games and prizes -- lotion and soap, plus two gift certificates for the shop. Note: The Oaks at Ojai offers recipes for their nutritional cuisine under the Blog item on their website menu: Recipes at The Oaks at Ojai.

Through the gallery hallway, we ventured into the Libbey room where we ate casual breakfasts, lunches and snacks, the gym area with a wide assortment of equipment and access to the pool and spa, and the gymnasium where a variety of classes was held. We took advantage of an ample selection of offerings and particularly enjoyed the morning hike (6:30 am) to hidden succulent gardens, pool cardio with noodle maneuvers and a soothing circle exercise, the gym cardio class with hula hoops-plus, and relaxation yoga. 

 The spa was particularly charming with an elaborately arched tile entry and similar decor throughout, particularly in the locker room and jacuzzi/fountain area. Spa services were the best. I gave my deep tissue massage an 11. Betsy felt her facial was just as delightful and relaxing. 

At the end of the day, what I found most enjoyable was the relaxing time I spent with Betsy and Amy. But the friendly people we met were absolutely delightful, too. The staff were fabulous, with a shout out to Sherry who keeps the Libbey room running smoothly for meals and the bingo hopping along with Hollywood trivia questions between games! The mostly women guests were equally friendly and engaging. We met repeat customers from the Los Angeles area, new people from Portland, Seattle and Kansas City, and  a mother with her eighteen-year-old daughter on their way to a college campus for the daughter's first year of college. 

I highly recommend The Oaks at Ojai for anyone who wants to experience a spa in Southern California with healthy food, numerous options for physical activity, and friendly staff and patrons, with the added bonus of early Spanish architecture in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Horses and Healing

When I did research for a novel about a San Diego teen who spends the summer on a Kentucky horse farm, I was amazed to learn about the powerful effects horses have on humans. For example, would you ever guess troubled teens, autistic children, and prison inmates have something in common? People in each of these groups are forming unique relationships with horses that allow each to heal. The bond is unlike anything achieved from counseling, medication, medical interventions and living behind bars.

Teens who exhibit risky behavior such as bullying, fighting, taking or selling drugs, stealing or joining a gang are at risk for dropping out of  school, or worse, going to jail. Some come from broken homes with absentee parents and some have experienced abuse, been victims of bullying, or have an untreated disability. Many turn to drugs to numb the pain and confusion and to fit in with peers. 

When a troubled teen works with and forms a relationship with a horse, they feel accepted for who they are. Since animals don't judge, challenge or accuse, and they have no knowledge of a person's background, the relationship is genuine, allowing the troubled young person to let down his defenses and get in touch with his humanity. Self-esteem improves and the teen begins to open up and release some of the anger that motivates him to act out. The horse's non-judgmental approach can also serve as a positive model for the teen who's reeling against authority and his situation.

Teens who have lost a family member may feel guilty or depressed and want to avoid family and friends, which can place them at risk for social, emotional and medical problems. Their response to the death is to shut off feelings and avoid anyone who might trigger them. 

When working with a horse, a young person can find solace and peace that may not be as easy to attain with other people. The horse's nonverbal communication allows space for acceptance and validation of whatever feelings the teen brings to the relationship. In time, they can work through the grief and gain confidence to open up emotionally, accept the death and even forgive themselves for any lingering guilt.   

The Spring Reins of Life program is one of many that incorporates Equine Assisted Psychoterapy (EAP) into working with troubled teens: 

Children with autism face a variety of challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Other areas of mental and social development may be affected as well, depending on the severity of illness. A 2015 study conducted by researchers in Colorado and North Carolina demonstrates the effects of therapeutic horse riding on children with autism, when compared to children with autism who only learned about horses, but didn't interact with them over the same period. The riders had better scores on language and social interaction, and greater improvement with hyperactivity and irritability. The results on irritability were "about half" the effect one might expect from medication. 

Since horses respond to the nonverbal body language of the rider and adjust accordingly, the child with autism can experience a sense of balance and kinship to put him at ease. The researchers believe the learning and calming effect of riding a horse can enhance self-esteem and communication in everyday life. One parent whose 11-year-old child with autism is also deaf put her son on a horse when he was three years old. The mother feels the riding has helped him to improve his core strength and senses of sight, smell and touch. 

Prison inmates represent a unique group benefiting from equine assisted therapy thanks to the efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). This is an organization that funds 24 facilities, some with prisoners, and many more individuals to care for thousands of horses retiring from the track. 

The reality is that horses are expensive animals and many owners are not able to maintain them after their career has ended. Unfortunately, the TRF reports 10,000 American racehorses are shipped to slaughter in Canada and Mexico each year, and TRF "is determined to change that." 

Photo: Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Nine state prisons around the country participate in the TRF Second Chances Program which is a partnership effort allowing TRF to access state land and prison volunteers to create horse sanctuaries. Most of the horses suffered injuries that ended their careers. With the supervised care they receive from prisoners, they can recover and experience second lives as pets, in equine competition, as police mounts and in equine-assisted therapy programs. 

Inmates from a wide range of backgrounds learn about horse anatomy, caring for injuries, equine nutrition and stable management. They receive a certificate upon completion of the rigorous program and some secure jobs as farriers, vet assistants and caretakers. But not surprising, the prisoners gain much more because of the trust and love they experience with a horse. They build confidence and a sense of empathy that can turn their lives around. Studies have also documented a reduction in recidivism rates at the facilities that host the program. 

News Story on Indiana Second Chances Prison Program

A few years ago, I visited Montpelier, the James Madison estate in Virginia which is a TRF farm with 40-50 thoroughbreds. Some are rescue horses and others come straight from the track with injuries. All are quite beautiful in the pristine setting. I'm attaching a few pictures here. If you're inclined, the TRF depends upon grants and donations to run their farms and Second Chances Program:  Make A Gift to TRF