Crescent Moon Center heals on the land

How art, horses, and the outdoors help recovery
By Samuel James Adams

At Solano Land Trust, we try to speak broadly and often about the mental and health benefits of time spent outdoors. Nature is for everyone and its benefits touch all. But sometimes addiction and recovery get left out of the conversation about mental health—and people who need what land can offer don’t hear it’s for them.

Karen Kahn wants the outdoors to be part of the recovery process and a part of fighting the stigma against addiction. She is the founder and director of Crescent Moon Center, a 501C3 organization located in Lafayette that operates its program at Rush Ranch Open Space. Crescent Moon Center utilizes land, horses, and art to create community and foster healing for people in recovery from substance abuse and alcoholism.

Karen founded the Crescent Moon Center in 2017 and spent nearly two years developing the program and looking for a property to purchase. She searched various North and East Bay counties but none of the properties were properly zoned, and communities were wary of recovery programs.

Thankfully, Solano County had a place for the program, at Rush Ranch, the 2070-acre open space where Solano Land Trust began. Karen’s husband drives horses, and through him, she met Access Adventure’s Michael Muir and Solano Land Trust’s Nicole Braddock, who were both receptive to the program.

The pandemic delayed the opening, but in July of 2021, they offered a free pilot program to eleven participants, most local to the region, but one from New York and one from Las Vegas.

“We came together as a group—all women by happenstance,” Karen says, “and held workshops over a period of six days which were highly successful. It motivated many of the women in the group to really change course in their lives or find their own path.”

Karen, whom the website bills as an “attorney, equestrian, artist, writer, and mother”, grew up in a “vibrant upscale art community” in New York City with parents who were art collectors. She was motivated to create a recovery program by family experiences, and to offer a program that gives participants new approaches and skills.

“Our workshops give people a lens into self-discovery,” Karen says. “We're a resource for people who cannot afford private rehab or therapy or who have exhausted their funds paying for that kind of support. This is a whole different route from Alcoholics Anonymous or structured programs that many rehab centers offer. It connects people who are working on recovery with the public because they tell their story through their art.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Can you talk about the role nature and the outdoors play for someone making their journey to recovery?
It’s so important for people who are dealing with addiction to experience the natural beauty of the world around them because most of these people live in their heads. They're isolated and COVID made that a lot worse. Bringing them out to a natural environment means bringing them away from the noise that they have in their lives. It connects them to who they are as authentic people. People have these qualities that are just locked up inside them, but when they go into a natural environment they can become present, be mindful, and settle down, relax, and feel the joy that being in nature brings.

Art is something that lives inside yourself: it’s not something that somebody gave to you. it's not something tangible, it's who you really are.

And how does art help with recovery?
Art is an expression of who you are. It's your inner creativity. Everyone has that but most people don't know it. Art is something that lives inside yourself: it’s not something that somebody gave to you. it's not something tangible, it's who you really are. A lot of people who are in recovery are not very verbal and are shut off from their feelings. Art opens that part of the human being to experience just being yourself and being in the world and expressing your feelings through colors and forms rather than through words.

There’s a part of the brain that interacts with art. In Montreal, there are a group of psychiatrists who are prescribing museum memberships. They’re finding that when they send their patients to museums the anxiety and depression they’ve been treated for lifts. There are also studies that look at functional MRI and you can see the different parts of the brain that light up with the art exposure.

How are you convincing the participants that art is for everyone and that they can do it?
I tell them that no art experience is necessary. I create a situation where they don't have time to run it through their heads. The Art for Healing workshop is a fast-paced program. The facilitator asks a series of questions which people have two minutes to answer using two colors. By the end of the questionnaire, they must fill up the entire canvas with color. So, they're not sitting there going, “Oh, I have to create! Oh, I have to be an artist. Oh, I don't know how to do this.” You’re circumventing that whole process. You're getting out their internal critic, you're getting rid of it, and you're just putting them in the moment. They have to be present, they have to be mindful, and they have to respond, so that's what they do. When they look at the art that they create, it's amazing.

Can you talk about some of the specific art projects people do in the program?
There's the mural-making workshop which is a collaborative experience. The facilitator that we have working with us is highly skilled and facilitates mural-making workshops all over the world. The process brings people together along themes of harmony and peace. She starts with a circle and a feather and people go around and talk a little bit about themselves so that when it comes to creating the mural, people are working together in a group and on the same page. On the mural you can see on our website—it's about seven or eight feet tall and about four feet wide—people would write messages to people that they lost or to their families. You pick up on each other’s energies and kind of get around the wires in your head that say, “I can't do it.”

Can you talk about what sort of work they're doing with the horses?
Most participants do not have experience with horses. Horses are large and they can be intimidating. People want to look at them from a distance and say, “Oh that's nice, they're pretty.” People have had bad experiences. They have been bitten or they’ve been on a horse that’s thrown them off. Maybe they're not the kind of person who picks themselves up and dusts themselves off and gets back in the saddle.

So, we don't require that people go into a small space with a horse unless they are willing to trust. Trust that we know what we're doing, trust that we have horses that are therapeutic and that aren't going to harm them or bite them or kick them. Horses teach people about boundaries. You can't just take it for granted that you can walk up to a horse and do whatever you want to do. You have to be welcomed into their space and they have to trust you as well. Boundaries are important in relationships and people in recovery have problems with boundaries. They either don't respect them or they don't understand them. So, it's a teaching tool to be around a horse. You need to kind of negotiate a relationship with them before you enter their space.

Horses also teach you about mindfulness and being present. Because if you go into a space with horses and you're anxious or you're angry, a horse is going to pick up on it. They're creatures of flight and they're very sensitive to human emotions and you're either kind of part of the herd or you're not.

Horses teach people about boundaries. You can't just take it for granted that you can walk up to a horse and do whatever you want to do. You have to be welcomed into their space and they have to trust you as well.

What does the future look like for participants finished with the program?
After people have completed the six-day course we offer them volunteer positions and training to be involved with Crescent Moon, where they can learn skills that they can use in their life going forward in terms of employment or school or whatever they're going to do out in the world.

So, we train people in program development skills, outreach, office skills, and computer skills. Basically, we integrate them into our program and they can stay with us and bring the program back into their communities or they can just develop these skills and feel confident enough to start looking for jobs or educational opportunities.

How can people support Crescent Moon Center?
We need help! We need funds and community support and understanding for what we're doing. If people want to volunteer, we would not have them do something that's preassigned, we'd want them to really feel like they fit in doing volunteer work that interests them.
If someone is interested, they can contact me at my cell phone at (510) 381 0619 or they can e-mail

Photos courtesy of Tom Muehleisen and Crescent Moon Center