Equine therapy: the hottest thing in wellness travel

A horse therapy session in a luxury farm-stay in the Blue Mountains proves to be an experience of personal healing and growth.

Equine therapy is growing in popularity around the world.
  • Jon Gregory
  • September 2019

Walking into the paddock towards the horse, I’m still unsure what’s involved in equine therapy. Perhaps it’s a new form of yoga performed in the saddle or a vigorous massage administered by hooves. I vow to keep an open mind but will have to draw the line if I’m asked to remove my shirt and lie facedown in the field.

Thankfully, the reality of the practice is a lot less faddish and new age than I fear. It’s an increasingly popular form of psychological treatment that takes place in a paddock, with a horse (of course). I’m intrigued enough to book a session during my stay at Eden Equine opens in new window, a luxury farmstay in Bilpin, 90 minutes west of Sydney, while the rest of my family take horseriding lessons on the other side of the 36-hectare property.

As well as equine therapy, there are more impromptu opportunities to bond with our four-legged friends here. My two sons run across the fields at 5.30am every day to pat and have lively discussions with the farm’s horses, goats and donkeys. They also join the guided-feeding sessions, which run at 10am on weekends and throughout the school holidays.

Equine therapy sessions need to be booked separately however and (AUD $175 per hour) should be arranged before you arrive.

Sammie Grantham, the resident equine therapist and qualified psychotherapist, tells me, “I can see things in minutes with a horse that could take me six regular counselling sessions.” An impressive claim from someone who has spent 20 years as a social worker, understanding people at their most vulnerable.

There's a special bond that horses share with humans.
Horses have an intuitive, sensitive quality that makes them ideal for therapy.

Unlike cats and dogs, horses are prey animals, meaning they’re at risk of attack from predators in the wild. Sammie tells me they’ve evolved to live in herds and are highly sensitive to the emotions of those around them, not only other horses, but people, too – they can hear the human heartbeat from over a metre away.

This heightened sensitivity and immediate feedback on a person’s emotional state has yielded great results in the treatment of trauma, autism, depression and behavioural disorders. And this horse-human connection lends itself to other wellness-specific uses, too, such as at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat opens in new window in Queensland, where horses are being used to uncover how clients manage challenging emotional situations, and at Nihi Sumba opens in new window, a luxury villa resort in Indonesia, where a horse whisperer is on-site to aid with “self-healing and self-awareness”.

While it all sounds great, I’m sceptical that equine therapy can do anything for me. Sammie asks me to close my eyes and talks me through a warm-up of yoga-style breathing exercises. “Become aware of your surroundings,” she says. “Listen to the wind.” Here we go, I think. Any minute now I’ll be asked to jump into the saddle and adopt the lotus position. But instead, I’m given the seemingly simple task of approaching the horse (a majestic creature named Nemo), attaching a halter and leading him around the paddock.

Sadly, Nemo is far more interested in chewing the grass than my feeble attempts to cajole him into a stroll. From the shade of a nearby tree, Sammie watches me spend 20 minutes patting, stroking and coaxing Nemo but not doing much walking. Our moments of “connection” are fleeting but they do occur. The few times he lifts his head to acknowledge me with his beautiful brown eyes, it’s clear to me he has my number.

The beautiful cottages at Eden Equine ooze rustic luxury.
Eden Equine isn't a farm-stay as you know it - it's as luxurious as it is cosy.

During the analysis at the end of my equine session (aka the post-match debrief), Sammie has identified some character traits in me that are alarmingly insightful. The specific details of these minor revelations will, thankfully, stay between Nemo and I (and Sammie – client confidentiality applies as it would in any non-farmyard therapy).

As I wander back across the green fields of the property towards my stylish (and very un-farmy) farmstay cabin, I feel dazed and enlightened and also slightly disconcerted by the fact that a horse in Bilpin knows me better than I know myself.