Riding the Wave: How Margaret Burns Vap Revolutionized the Yoga Retreat Experience

  • Photos by:
    Larry Stanley Photography
  • Published on:
    March 6, 2024
  • Reading time by:
    6 minutes
Riding the Wave: How Margaret Burns Vap Revolutionized the Yoga Retreat Experience

In the vast expanse of Montana’s rugged landscape, Margaret Burns Vap carved out her niche long before yoga retreats became a trend. In 2007, she ventured into uncharted territory, blending the tranquility of yoga with the untamed spirit of the West. Little did she know, her brainchild, Cowgirl Yoga, would gallop into the hearts of wellness seekers worldwide, embodying the essence of adventure, mindfulness, and connection.

At the heart of Cowgirl Yoga lies an innovative approach: blending equine companionship with mindful movement. “Our biggest and best offering has been Cowgirl Yoga, which combines yoga with horses,” Margaret explains. “But not yoga ON horses!” Instead, Cowgirl Yoga fosters the mind-body-horse connection, a unique synergy that transcends traditional yoga practices. “Our motto is Add a little Yeehaw to your Namaste,” she quips, encapsulating the spirit of adventure and introspection that defines Cowgirl Yoga.

For Margaret, Cowgirl Yoga isn’t just a business venture; it’s a passion project deeply rooted in family values. “My daughter and I have both experienced how much yoga and horses have helped our neurodivergent challenges,” she shares. “She hopes to major in psychology and animal behavior – I’d like to think I had something to do with that.” As a mother and entrepreneur, Margaret finds fulfillment in nurturing both her business and her family’s dreams.

Can you elaborate on the evolution of Cowgirl Yoga and how you have strategically positioned it in the market, especially considering the uniqueness of combining yoga with horses?

I wish I could take credit for “strategically positioning” Cowgirl Yoga in the yoga retreat market! Back when we launched it in 2008, I knew it was a unique combination…but what I didn’t know is how true my intention would continue to be over time. 

You can go somewhere that offers both riding and yoga; but how many places truly connect them, so you can experience how much they compliment each other? That is the essence of what I do. Each day on a Cowgirl Yoga retreat is unique, but the themes are recurring: nurturing the horse-human connection, and connecting what we do on the yoga mat to our time with the horses. Every day has yoga as well as horse time, and each practice feeds the other. On the yoga mat, we spend time not only preparing our bodies for the physical aspects of riding, but also preparing our hearts and minds to be open and receptive to the horse’s energy. We bring back the emotions and sensations from our horse interaction to our mats, for processing in new ways. It’s a cycle with a beautiful rhythm, that encourages unexpected personal discoveries.

I like to call a horse a “moving yoga mat”. There are so many parallels to what we practice with the horses and our yoga practice. Creating that connection between horse and human goes hand in hand with cultivating connection to self, and ultimately others, on your yoga mat. It’s a new twist on your yoga practice, that keeps people coming back for more (and, not just twice – we have retreaters that come back every year and are on their 8th, 9th, 10th Cowgirl Yoga retreat!). I always say that the best thing about horses and yoga is that you’re never done learning with either; that provides the opportunity for a rich variety of experiences. It’s never the same thing twice. 

Can you share insights into the business aspects of incorporating equine coaching into Cowgirl Yoga? How do you envision expanding this program, and what impact do you hope it will have, particularly in supporting neurodivergent individuals?

Equine coaching was a happy accident that sort of fell into my lap, and I immediately recognized it as another modality to connect yoga and horses. Since then, I’ve seen some of the most powerful horse-human connections happen in the round pen. This is where you connect with a horse on the ground vs. on his back. This is where you create a mind-body-horse connection, with some suggestions from me. I like to think of it as offering the horse the benefits of your yoga practice. This is the place where that kind of alchemy is possible, because it’s about offering your authentic energy to the horse, and allowing him to respond to it. People always ask me if Cowgirl Yoga is doing yoga on a horse – absolutely not! It goes way deeper than that, and the biggest  “success stories” we have from our Cowgirl Yoga retreats don’t happen while riding. 

Both my daughter and I have ADHD, and our diagnoses were life-changing. It’s easy to see that animals can heal people – but when you narrow that lens to what animals can do for neurodivergent individuals, it is mind-blowing. I have been fortunate enough to experience it myself, and it lends deeper layers to what I can offer through equine coaching. The possibility and potential to help someone who is struggling with the challenges of neurodiversity, with a horse partner, is more than I could have ever asked for in this venture. 

How has the growth of yoga retreats and wellness tourism in general affected your business, and what strategies do you have in place to stay innovative and competitive in this dynamic market?

It’s always validating to see that you were on trend with something; I remember when I had to explain to people where Montana was, and why they would ever want to come here on a yoga retreat. 

We’re keeping it simple, and staying true to our original intention: combining damn good yoga with authentic experiences, plus a generous sprinkle of getting outside in nature. 

There’s been a lot of bells and whistles added to yoga lately. It pains me, because I’m a bit of a yoga purist. Something so inherently perfect already does not need further embellishment. Yoga has stayed relevant for thousands of years – it doesn’t need our modern urge to decorate it. Yoga can stand on its own. Despite my previous marketing career that included predicting trends in the beauty industry and my appreciation for creativity…I will venture this is the one thing that doesn’t require change, innovation, whatever you want to call it, to get better. So we’re sticking with properly aligned, well sequenced, damn good yoga. Get on your mat and do the practice. It’s absolutely elegant in its timeless simplicity.

One of our main themes is authentic experiences. We’ve carefully cultivated retreat locations that aren’t typical. Yes, we had wonderful retreats in Costa Rica and Tuscany…but then I realized going further off-the-beaten yoga path sparked something fresh and new. On our retreat in Argentina, we meditate and practice yoga, and on the same day ride horses with gauchos. On our French Alps retreat, it’s yoga followed by a helicopter ride around the iconic Mont Blanc, that brings up so much emotion you’re in tears. In Montana, we host our retreat at a working Dude Ranch that breeds Appaloosa horses, a horse whose history is directly linked to that of the land. Those kinds of combinations give our yoga a depth that doesn’t happen when you just roll your mat out in an exotic locale, without doing something to participate in the place you are part of for a bit. Yoga enhances the impact of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. 

Last but not least, Nature. I recently read something about therapists starting to have sessions with their clients outdoors and in local parks. And I wondered what’s taken this long. Nature is therapy. We’ve lost our connection to it in so many ways – but it’s easy enough to fix. Just go outside. Moving to Montana reawakened my soul on this level, and I realized how powerful combining getting outside with yoga could be. Every retreat combines yoga with an outdoor activity – horses, hiking, and on our Yoga and Vineyard retreat in Sicily, exploring farms, vineyards, and historical sites (not to mention yoga in vineyards!).

As a business leader in the wellness industry, what trends do you foresee shaping the future of holistic health and how do you plan to position Cowgirl Yoga to capitalize on these trends?

Two words: Slowing down.  

We’ve spent years saying that we’re stressed, that we need to stop rushing all the time; yet, the recent trends I’ve noticed in yoga is fast sequencing to do more poses, hotter than hot yoga, yoga sculpt with weights, pretty much never slowing down, but instead always adding more. Then we’re going to yoga to DO MORE, exactly what we’re trying to get away from. How can you focus on alignment and breath, two of the greatest benefits of yoga, when you’re pushing so hard and moving too fast? Spoiler alert: you can’t. 

People on retreat will ask me: what are we doing from X o’clock to Y o’clock? When I say, nothing planned, that’s down time, I see the panic in their eyes. We have to get more comfortable with rest, recovery, not always doing something, if we are to get healthier. One of my favorite cues when teaching yoga is, “find the rest between the work”. We’ve attached false value to always doing. One of our most popular recent retreats is called Restore and Reboot – no power yoga allowed, only yin, restorative, and meditation. So, some people are starting to notice how appealing slowing down is, in our culture of being busy all the time. 

With regards to Cowgirl Yoga, you have to slow down to truly connect with horses. In groundwork, I always tell people that the more you push for “it” to happen, the less anything will happen. And nothing may happen – or nothing that is immediately obvious. Horses value rest. That is their reward. So when we stop trying so hard they often meet us there, in surprising and rewarding ways. Horses are going to back me up on this slowing down thing. 

Given your daughter’s involvement in Cowgirl Yoga and her interest in psychology and animal behavior, how has being a mother influenced your approach to running a business that is deeply rooted in family values?

My daughter doesn’t know this, but she is the co-creator of Cowgirl Yoga. Becoming a mother was like a lightning bolt to my motivation. We always want more for our kids; I wanted her to have what I so deeply longed for in my own childhood – horses. When she was born, yoga had already done so much for my well-being, and with owning a yoga studio in Washington DC, I already had a toe dipped in yoga entrepreneurship. With my family’s move to Montana when she was not even 2 years old, I went after my childhood dream and dove into horses, not quite knowing where it would lead. And voilà – shortly after, Cowgirl Yoga was born. 

She grew up with horses, learning to ride, learning to take care of them, and always having them there – 1000+  pounds of big, soft, warm, physical and emotional support. It’s that last part that really does it. She’s seen how horses help people; she’s lived it. Our ADHD experiences and diagnoses ignited the spark for her interest in pursuing psychology studies – and the horses are along for that ride. I wish I could major in both psychology and animal behavior, by her side – but I will continue to mine the motivation she has given me since the day she was born, and maybe one day we will combine our work. My heart is filled with pride that she is taking the professional and personal life I created for myself, in her own unique direction. It makes me feel hugely accomplished as both an entrepreneur and as a mother. 

In what ways has the practice of yoga and your connection with horses impacted your well-being, and how do you incorporate these experiences into your leadership style and decision-making as a business owner? 

The things that have made me feel most connected to my world have been yoga, meditation, being outdoors, and animals. Specifically, horses. When I can combine these – for example, meditating outdoors near my horses – my energy shifts significantly. This is what I want to share with people. These are the key elements of my yoga retreats – spending time in nature and with horses, practicing yoga and meditation. Yes, I can teach you yoga indoors on your mat – but what elevates the practice to a higher vibration is taking what we do with yoga and connecting it to how we interact with horses as sentient beings. 

Horses give humans wisdom beyond words. They reconnect us with a deep inner knowing that we’ve lost touch with over millennia of becoming more “civilized”. They are authentic and live in the moment. Yoga teaches us to be in the present, not obsessed with the past or worried about the future. Horses do that too. Horses don’t accept emotional incongruity – think pretending you’re not afraid of them, when you might be just a little afraid. As prey animals, hiding what you’re feeling is perceived as a threat to them – it doesn’t smell right and they will tell you so. They create an invaluable opportunity for us to be authentic and emotionally honest. 

My job definitely does not include the option to merely “go through the motions”; I need to lead from an authentic place in order to offer what I do. So many jobs require people to be someone they are not; I’m very fortunate that I don’t need to fake anything. Yoga and horses have given me the gift of a business that truly comes from the heart.

How do you maintain a work-life balance, especially considering the nature of leading retreats in various locations and managing a business that is so intertwined with personal passions and experiences?

My mantra for many years has been: self-care is non negotiable. It sounds so simple – yet can be so, so difficult. Somehow our culture has shaped us to believe that the last person we should take care of is ourselves. As women, we have a lot of guilt about self-care – it’s too expensive, I can’t take that time off work, I have family obligations. Sometimes we have to choose ourselves, and not feel selfish about doing so. I aim to practice what I preach. 

However, it can be a hard line to draw since my work IS teaching work-life balance. I do know that when I’m depleted, I can’t do that. So taking care of myself and knowing when I need a break is integral to what I do. I also recognize that I can’t teach yoga or horses without my own non-work, non-teaching experiences to draw from, so making sure I practice yoga regularly and cultivate my passion for horses away from my retreats is my “continuing education”, that fuels my own life balance. 

Reflecting on your journey, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to merge personal passions with business ventures?

  1. Whatever business you start – be authentic. Personal passion cannot become business if you’re not authentic. Stay true to your vision – if new ideas stray too far from that, they ultimately won’t support growth.
  2. Be patient – you can’t rush success. Take the time to build your business with a robust and solid foundation, vs. taking shortcuts that falsely promise to accelerate success. Buying followers on social media is nowhere near as valuable as a smaller number of followers who are truly interested in what you offer. 
  3. Look for synergy with other small businesses. That has been one of the best ways I’ve nurtured my business and created community along the way. It feels good to support other entrepreneurs and contribute to their success, along with your own. There are so many amazing women business owners out there – we can hold each other up, and help each other achieve success. 

Yeehaw & Namaste. 

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