Erin Coulehan

Photography by
Katherine Kocian

One of the mysteries of existence is the way that animals can connect people more deeply to our own humanity. We give grace when there’s an accident in the house. We shower them with positive affirmations. We learn life lessons from creatures who will never speak our language.

Most can relate to the experience of having an awful day – maybe an awful few days, weeks, months – and coming home to a wagging tail. Suddenly, things feel okay. There’s comfort in sharing a connection with another living being, even amidst struggle.

Oftentimes, our four-legged friends are the ones who teach us how to more securely stand on our own two feet.

Through empathy, compassion, and determination, Roberto Rivas Jr., a disabled United States Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan post-9/11, transitioned to a career in biomedical engineering, ultimately finding purpose and healing through time spent with animals. By introducing goat yoga to the community at Rancho Los Rivas, he not only offers a unique form of relaxation and fitness, but also fosters a supportive environment for people and animals to connect and thrive.

“I was one of the first units in Afghanistan right after 9/11,” says Rivas on a sunny February afternoon on his ranch with a recently hatched chick sleeping sweetly in each hand. “I worked on jets and helicopters, and was in the thick of it.” Rivas served for four years that included two overseas deployments in the middle of a warzone.

“I spent more time out there than I would like, and seeing the nastiness of war made me want to change my field to medicine,” he says. “I realized that I wanted to help save lives rather than being involved in the taking of lives – and now look at us.”

Rancho Los Rivas in West El Paso is a hacienda-style home where Rivas and the many members of his menagerie live, work, and inspire.

Rivas came back from deployment forever changed and struggled to find a path toward healing. He was accepted into Harvard Medical School, where he completed two and a half years before his father fell ill with cancer and he moved back to El Paso. The stress of giving up his medical school education, coupled with existing trauma, a cross-country move, and his father’s health compounded the stress, but led to a universally-desired feeling: he wasn’t alone.

“As all this stress piled and piled on,” he says, “I realized that my dogs were helping me feel better. Then I remembered that I used to like horses and horseback riding.”

He purchased a ranch, and thus, Rancho Los Rivas was born.

“I bought my first horse and noticed that I didn’t have anxiety attacks anymore. I didn’t have panic attacks anymore. I decided to start getting more animals, then I got the goats and have not had any issues since,” he says, stroking the mane of Dante, his very first horse.

The benefits of interacting with animals as a way to alleviate stressors are myriad and include enhanced physical fitness, social connection, sense of purpose, improved communication skills, mood enhancement, and improved quality of life.

For many, pets like dogs and cats are family, and Rivas is introducing the community to expanded access to animals by being the first in the city to offer goat yoga in 2022.

Goat yoga is a popular fitness experience that offers a combination of novelty, dress relief, social interaction, and health benefits to participants in a fun and engaging atmosphere for people of different backgrounds and fitness levels.

“It combines the animals with the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation,” says Rivas. “We partnered with a local yoga studio that has certified instructors to lead the classes here, and we open it up to everybody.”

Rancho Los Rivas offers goat yoga classes every Saturday at 9am that people can book their spots at Rivas’ website.

“We have people who are repeat customers and really enjoy it. We also have people who come and just want to hangout with the animals. You don’t have to have yoga experience, just an open mind,” he says.

Part of the success and popularity of the Saturday classes is the connection created between person and animal, with mammals like goats and horses being particularly friendly.

“They want to be with you,” says Rivas. “They want you to be part of their circle.”