This unusual therapeutic retreat involves hanging with the horses. And your first task is to find them, writes Nadia Krige
On the pastoral outskirts of Riversdale in the Western Cape lies a stretch of land endowed with more than just a sprinkling of magic.
Apart from being a literal well-spring of rejuvenation, where crystal-clear water bubbles up from the earth, Gratitude Farm is also home to a herd of special horses who assist owner Vanessa Malvicini in a unique form of hippotherapy.
Thinking we'd have a relaxed chat at the kitchen table, I arrived at Gratitude Farm at 10am on a Tuesday wearing a long, flowy skirt and a pair of sandals, notebook in hand and pen at the ready.
After a round of warm greetings from Vanessa, her husband Karsten and their instantly lovable pack of dogs, it became clear that she had other plans.
"Shall we head up to the forest?" Vanessa asked (rhetorically), while pulling on a pair of walking shoes and gesturing towards a large patch of pine trees blanketing a gentle slope behind their home. Not a complete stranger to trekking through rough terrain in inappropriate clothing and footwear, I happily obliged.
Once we'd reached dappled shade, she explained: "This is where the herd lives. If they want us to find them, they will show themselves. However, if they don't want to interact with us, they will hide. So, which way do you want to walk?"
No pressure, I thought.
"Let's go that way," I said, pointing to a rough pathway to my right. "Does that feel okay to you too, Guillaume?" she asked my boyfriend, who had come along. He nodded.
As we walked, I tried to still an uncanny nervousness rising up inside. What if the horses didn't want me to find them? What if I didn't really want to find the horses? I hid my uneasiness in a steady stream of questions. I hardly noticed that we had practically criss-crossed the entire forest without even a glimpse of a hoof-print.
"Hmmm. I think maybe you are concentrating too much on me and not enough on the horses. Now put away your notebook and let your heart guide you," Vanessa instructed, clearly perplexed by the absent horses - and our time constraints.
Butterflies started flitting in my gut. We set out in a northeasterly direction. When we reached the edge of a smallish farm dam, finally, on the opposite edge, I saw the flicking of a tail through foliage.
"There they are!" I whispered and Vanessa smiled. After a few moments of quietly watching them, she indicated for us to follow her and we started making our way towards them.
We were a few hundred metres away when a big and beautiful Appaloosa stopped grazing, fixed his attention on us and started ambling our way. He came straight for me, sniffed my shirt, nibbled at my skirt and finally raised his head, meeting my eye with a soulful gaze.
Horses have always scared me a little with their size, their sheer power, their presence. But when I reached out a trembling hand to stroke Cowboy Justice's nose all I felt was immense kindness, a reassuring flood of "everything is going to be okay".
He moved on to Guillaume and did the same, with one strange addition - a 90-degree turn fixing his powerful backside just inches from the man's face and then performed a truly majestic bowel movement. We giggled but Vanessa said that while the horses were with us they were communicating in even the most mundane moves. While she couldn't tell us what it meant, she suggested that perhaps there was something Guillaume needed to release.
We didn't have the time to delve too much deeper. But somehow a seed had been planted for both of us in different ways. We later agreed this was probably the power of Vanessa's therapy: non-verbal and natural, there was scope to explore the feelings that surfaced in the presence of a benign being, rather than trying to pry apart the layers with words and analysis.
HORSES AS HEALERS
Vanessa Malvicini has been working with horses for decades. She began with traditional hippotherapy in Italy, working with children with Down's syndrome and autism, where the movement of the horses assists in calming and promoting motor and sensory input. She noticed how even the wildest horses would display gentle behaviour in the presence of these often overly energetic children.
This prompted her to start studying the emotional depth of these creatures that have lived so closely alongside humans since the beginning of time.
"I joined a group of women who were doing this sort of work in Arizona and soon learnt that horses are absolute emotional geniuses, able to guide and teach one another as well as humans," she says.
The therapy is rooted in the belief that, being empathic creatures, horses are able to connect with humans on an energetic level and read into the non-verbal messages being communicated. Guided by the horses, Vanessa helps people access and break through deep-set and long-held tensions, anxieties, fears, grudges and insecurities.
"People tend to project what they are feeling onto the horses. The horses' behaviour towards them then serves as a sort of a mirror," she explains.
Vanessa has four stallions that assist in therapy - Cowboy Justice, Painted Mezzanotte, Zeus (all three Appaloosas) and a white cremello horse called Boreas. They roam free in the forest behind their home and searching for them on foot, as we did, forms part of the therapy session.
The farm is also home to other creatures, including another 16 horses, three potbelly pigs, 10 cats, five Merino sheep, eight goats, 43 geese and more than 50 chickens and cows.
IF YOU GO...
HIPPOTHERAPY: There are various options, including custom-made team building, couple’s and group workshops. Retreats are, however, her main focus. These can be done over weekends but must be booked a few weeks in advance.
If you want to do a longer retreat (Vanessa recommends at least three days for maximum benefit), these are best done during the Western Cape school holidays. Accommodation on the farm is exclusively available to guests looking to work with the horses.
RATES: R2,400 per person per day for a six-hour retreat, materials and food; R2,900 pppd for a six-hour retreat, materials, food and shared accommodation.