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After an unexpected bombshell exploded in Alison James’ personal life, a unique form of equine therapy has helped her to move on
A childhood donkey ride on a seaside beach, the odd clumsy attempt at pony trekking, an occasional day at the races. . . I’d never had much to do with animals of the equine kind. They scared me to be honest – all flying hooves, huge teeth, flaring nostrils and unpredictability. I’d certainly never connected horses with any kind of healing power but then what did I know?
I’d also never expected to find myself after 30-plus years of seemingly happy marriage, starring into an abyss no longer knowing what my future held.
All images: Tania Araujo
A marital curve-ball
In 2019, I discovered that my husband and the father of our three grown-up kids had been having an affair for over a year. As infidelity goes, this was pretty standard fare, I guess. His lover was younger than me, fitter than me, more exotic than me.
But there was an added ‘extra’. A sting in the spousal tail. My husband’s lover was another man.
“Yeah, I’m gay,” was my husband’s frankly flippant explanation. “I think I’ve been gay since I was 12 years old. I hadn’t acted on it before. I just didn’t feel ready.” To say I was shocked was the ultimate understatement. My whole world suddenly collapsed around me. My life was a like a demolished building – and my once much-loved husband had pressed the detonator.
I needed to rediscover my own identity, after decades of being a wife and mum and putting my own desires and needs at the very bottom of the list
Fast forward three-and-a-half very difficult years and the beginning of 2023 saw me attempting to seriously move on. I wanted to put the past behind me and look towards the future – a future I knew I was going to have to rebuild.
I also needed to rediscover my own identity, after decades of being a wife and mum and putting my own desires and needs at the very bottom of the list. I’d had some therapy and, although this had helped, I’d found it to be a long, drawn-out process. I needed a stark reboot – a kind of caring and nurturing short, sharp, shock treatment, if there was such a thing. And this is where the horses come in.
Equine therapy? The healing power of horses?
A friend told me about a new week-long equine therapy retreat she’d heard about taking place on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba. The brainchild of Professor Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a chartered psychologist and psychotherapist of many years standing in addition to being an equine expert, he founded Operation Centaur in London in 2005 after witnessing how well soldiers with severe PTSD responded to horses. Now 18 years on, he was launching ‘Retreat and Conquer’ – a holistic, five-day, four-night retreat in which horses would play a central role.
“When we connect with a horse, we don’t just connect with an incredible animal – we also connect with a disavowed part of ourselves,” the Professor was quoted as saying. “In traditional therapy, this can take a very long time. Horses, however, do in therapy what they have always done for us: help us get there faster.”
In traditional therapy, this can take a very long time. Horses, however, do in therapy what they have always done for us: help us get there faster.
Having read from former participants that just five days of equine therapy had achieved more than several years of weekly therapy and that there was no requirement to be an experienced rider, I was sold. This sounded like just what I needed. It was time to treat myself and concentrate wholly on me. A once-in-a lifetime trip that would push me out of my current highly uncomfortable comfort zone. And hopefully enable me to start seeing the world in glorious, positive technicolour again.
Sumba is a paradise
The word ‘paradise’ tends to be bandied about with casual abandon, but the island of Sumba truly is a Garden of Eden. Carpeted with lush rice terraces and tropical forests as swaying palm trees cast a silhouette against a cloudless blue sky, white-gold beaches run around the island like a ribbon. The resort of Nihi Sumba, situated on stunning Nihiwatu beach and tagged the ‘Edge of Wildness’ was a lesson in understated luxury.
I settled into my truly heavenly accommodation – complete with white-linen canopied king-size bed, massive balcony overlooking the Indian ocean, and outdoor bathroom. The first evening saw us sat in a circle with Andreas and his fellow psychotherapist, Raoul Aparici, embarking on a session of group therapy.
Minus the two professionals, we numbered eight and were all there for different reasons – burn-out, grief, the breakdown of a relationship, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, or a combination of all six. There was little small-talk. The object of the exercise was to open up.
For some, this proved difficult but I had no problems. Think the proverbial dam overflowing its banks, the metaphor being doubly apt as the tears flowed as profusely as my words. Afterwards, I felt a sense of relief and a letting go of anxiety. It would be the next day before we even encountered the horses.
Meeting the horses
Perched on a hillside above the beach, we heard the thunder of hooves before these magnificent animals came into view. What a sight they made as they galloped, free as the day they were born, across the sands. Sumba’s horses are at the heart and soul of the resort – and indeed the island as a whole. Numbering 22 in all, the herd is made up of ponies native to the island, former racehorses, and equines that have been rescued.
After their run, the horses roamed among us. We had been instructed to ‘buddy-up’ with the animal we felt most connected to. For me, there was only one contender – a beautiful, sleek chestnut mare who went by the name of Bindi. I approached her and tentatively stroked her nose and patted her neck. To my surprise, I wasn’t scared. She towered over me, big and beautiful – a bit like Beyonce in equine form – and when she looked at me, it felt like a little she could see inside my soul.
Having bonded with our horses, we took them for a walk and then a ride along the beach. I found myself singing to Bindi but felt liberated, rather than foolish. More therapy followed that evening. While some of our number struggled with notion of what the horses were actually doing for us in a therapeutic sense, I instinctively felt that I ‘got’ it.
Bindi was my mirror image – or rather the reflection of who I wanted to be, who I could be. She was confident and wouldn’t be cowed. Nobody puts Bindi in the corner! She was just herself – there was no other creature she could possibly be – and that was more than good enough. She lived in the moment. For her, the only reality was the here and now. I longed to be a version of Bindi in human form. I had been once. I was determined to be so again.
Sitting on Bindi’s back on day three as she swam in the warm waters of the Indian ocean is a memory I shall cherish forever. It was scary but exhilaratingly so. If I could do that, I could do anything. That afternoon, following another session of group therapy, we were divided into pairs and instructed to tell our life stories to our partner as we sat on the beach. I was coupled up with a girl I had not immediately bonded with but by the end of the session, I felt very close to her.
As day turned to night and a bonfire blazed on the beach, we wrote individual postcards to ourselves which we then consigned to the flames. My message said goodbye to the old traumatised me – or at least the one from the past three-and-a-half years. It was a symbolic gesture, but I could feel it working. I felt free. A formal one-to-one therapy session took place before we embarked on a couple of days R & R. Once again, the tears flowed, but these were different to the ones I’d shed at the beginning of the week. I could see a future I felt positive and happy about. I felt calmer and more at peace than I had at any time since life, as I’d known it, had imploded.
It had only been five days but felt much longer. I am still a work in progress as I get to grips with a life I neither chose nor envisaged. But I’m getting there – and that is due, in no small part, to ‘Retreat and Conquer’ and my beautiful Bindi.
Alison James was a guest of Retreat & Conquer Nihi, which has four nights’ full-board from £8,295pp, including all equine therapy and activities.
The next one runs from 25 – 29 November. Fly to Tambolaka airport via Bali.
Retreat and Conquer are planning retreats in the United Arab Emirates and Scotland in addition to Sumba where the next five day retreat takes place in November 2023.
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