From art classes to yoga and horse-riding, Belisi Farmstay takes a holistic approach. Justin Meneguzzi learns about the ancient art of equine therapy.

My therapist has flowing golden hair, two huge brown eyes, four legs and his name is Hugo. The chestnut thoroughbred watches calmy as I sidle up beside him and begin brushing his neck. It’s the most intimate way I’ve ever been introduced to an allied health professional, yet over the next hour Hugo and I will quickly develop a close bond.

I’m at Belisi Farmstay Cottage, a luxurious rural sanctuary outside Wagga Wagga, halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, with an emphasis on holistic wellness (therapies that treat mind and body).

The accommodation, an up-cycled shipping container with sweeping views over the Riverina region, is a self-contained retreat, but it can also double as a private massage, yoga and meditation studio.

Just down the hill at the newly built equestrian centre, which hosts art classes as well as equine therapy sessions, I meet manager Erika Neo. She has nearly a decade of experience in horse-assisted therapy, an increasingly popular treatment that helps clients address a wide range of social and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wellbeing and Equestrian Centre.

On the surface, brushing and caring for horses can seem like a mindfulness activity akin to colouring books, but there’s more to it than just distracting us from our thoughts. As a herd animal, horses are highly attuned to our emotional state and body language, mirroring our thoughts in a way we often don’t realise.

“Horses don’t lie,” explains Ms Neo, a Singaporean-expat with a shock of blonde hair, as she guides me through my therapy session. “When you put people in a safe space, where they are calm and with another being that is not judging them, they can open up. For people with experiences of trauma, sometimes that trauma can … be faced in small, controlled amounts.”

Using horses in therapy has a long history (the Ancient Greeks rode horses to treat ailments), but their potential in psychotherapy is gaining momentum, fuelled by books and plays, such as War Horse, that explore our relationship with horses.

Studies show communicating with horses helps us learn responsibility, compassion and patience. Meeting an animal that can read your thoughts seems daunting, but as I settle into brushing Hugo’s coat, we begin to feel each other out. I massage his chest with the comb and he enthusiastically stamps his hooves and nestles into my shoulder in appreciation.

I walk him to a small circular arena, where Ms Neo asks me to train Hugo to canter in circles around me. Without any experience in how to do this, it quickly becomes an exercise in creative problem-solving. I’m reluctant to take the most obvious solution, a whip placed in the centre of the ring, and with some gentle coaching from Ms Neo I learn body language is all I need to make Hugo move. We’re soon moving in tandem. My arms slice the air as Hugo canters in circles, and there is an exhilarating sense of mutual understanding. When we stop, Hugo walks over for a cuddle. I feel calmer and more relaxed as he is led away to the stables.

Belisi’s owner, Jenni Riethmuller, says she sees this transformation every time. “We get teenagers acting all tough and swearing a lot, but then they change. We’ve had men with controlling personalities come here and they soften. They learn that perfection isn’t everything, and that’s okay,” she says.

“We’ve been running equine therapy here for two years … it’s been driven by a real community need. Now we get referrals from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, people recovering at drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres and war veterans.”

While Belisi does hold riding lessons, Ms Riethmuller says mounting a horse is not a requirement of equine therapy. The therapy is offered as part of an eight-week course, but guests can also gain much from a one-off session. You can also choose from wellness activities, including simple pleasures like a bushwalk or collecting eggs from the farm’s hen house.

A storm blows in and I retreat to my cottage to soak in the eye-catching stone bath, with a glass of sparkling in hand, as

I watch lightning crackle across the sky and black clouds wheel over the valley. Later, beneath the meditative drum of rain on the roof,

I meet my teacher for a private yoga nidra class.

In the morning, I wake to see a black gelding just beyond my window, watching as I make an espresso. If horses are our reflections, then he looks as calm and rested as I feel.

Take me there

Drive: Belisi is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Canberra, four hours from Bathurst, and six hours from Newcastle.

Train: If you’re not a fan of road trips, a six-hour train journey from Sydney’s Central Station to Wagga Wagga costs from $53.

Fly: Qantas and Rex fly daily from Sydney to Wagga Wagga.

Stay: Belisi Farmstay Cottage is $295 per night for two guests.

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