Sitting down to write this post made me wince with pain. No, this blog isn’t that much of a chore… I’ve been horse riding for the first time in months and, although my body hurts like hell, my mind feels calmer than ever.
Increasingly, horses are being used for mindfulness – proving especially effective for those who don’t embrace talking therapies. One example is The Horse Boy Foundation – launched by Rupert Isaacson after he found a relationship with horses helped ease his son’s autism – which runs equine therapy camps for autistic children and their families. You can even go on retreats now, rather than a yoga or spa trip.
Horses can be perfect partners to psychotherapy. They respond to human behaviour, and even imitate it. They are herd animals and, some research suggests, can feel the human heartbeat so acutely that they can even match their own to it.
When I was struggling with low mood a few years ago, escaping to a remote ranch in Uruguay was the best thing I did. In fact, I would go as far as to say it healed me.
Juan Manuel runs the cattle ranch Panagea with his wife Susanne and two daughters. It is a simple existence: you’re void of internet, a room of your own, a steady hot running shower or more than two hours of electricity a day.
Instead, you’re fed hearty meals, excellent conversation and hard days of mind-cleansing work – it is all about turning off from your normal life and mucking in.
There’s even a princess button for when you really miss your straighteners.
But back to the horses. Juan Manuel claims he can get ANYONE “riding perfectly” in just five days. I had a bit of experience, but this was something else.
“If you fall off, if the horse bites, if something bad happens – that is your fault, not the horses’,” Juan Manuel told me. And he was right.
These animals are trained to follow your lead and if you mess them about, they don’t stand for it. I was taught how to saddle up – with layers of sheepskin, leather and a rope – and how to ride like a gaucho.
Within minutes, I was off herding cattle on the farm. The trip was about working together, trusting your horse and completing your work as humans and horses have done for centuries.
Horses are soothing and gentle – if you trust them, they reciprocate. Riding and commanding a horse can help you feel in control again. And, in the saddle of a horse speeding through the beautiful countryside, all your worries seem somewhat insignificant.
It sounds absurd but every time I feel a bit overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or upset, I head for the hills on horseback. Part of it might be escapism: distance from not only digital but physical pressures at home. Riding removes you from a modern era – where an Uber home costs less than a cocktail.
But it also gives you time to think, truly think, without interruptions or opinions. There’s no distraction apart from the process of riding – digging your heels in, willing your horse to go faster, before catching your balance and focusing.
As the adrenaline fades, with your breath in your chest (and likely bugs in your mouth), you begin to see clearly. And, by the time you get home, if you’re anything like me, another silent spell in the bath helps you to mull it all over (but won’t entirely stop the aching bones).
I can understand how horses, weighing up to 2,000lb, can be intimidating – but it makes me respect the horse. When you ride, you learn to value your own life, value how privileged you are to be able to experience the countryside, to roam free on horseback – without (fingers crossed) getting hurt.
I’m not saying horses are the answer to serious mental health issues or years of abuse. And it’s not cheap or accessible – but, for me, it is healing. It tells me I’m home.
If you’d like to stay at the Panagea Estancia (+598 99836149), it costs £48pp per day, including meals, accommodation and horse riding.