When it comes to solving problems, the last thing you'd think of is going to talk to a horse. But if the success of equine-assisted therapy in the US is anything to go by, it could be the next big thing.
Horses are used to help people get over everything from drug addiction to post-traumatic stress and self-esteem issues. But does it actually work? Ruth Addicott gives it a try in Sussex.
I've been petrified of horses ever since the age of five, when a gentle pony ride "suitable for children" turned into a pounding gallop without any prior warning. I survived unscathed but vowed never to take part in equestrian sports ever again.
So it was with a mixture of fear and dread that I accepted an invitation to try out Equine-Assisted Psycho- therapy (EAP).
EAP is based on the idea horses can help with emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It is said to be highly effective for people suffering from post-traumatic stress, bereavement, relationship problems or addiction. It's also used by corporate companies, trying to instil leadership skills in their staff.
Celebrities have tried it, too. Lindsay Lohan used it as part of her rehab and Ulrika Jonsson did it to try and cure her sex addiction.
I don't have an addiction as such (apart from Cadbury Wispas) but am intrigued to find out if there's anything in it. Can a horse really provide "amazing insights" into personalities and behaviour patterns?
EAP has been big in the US for some time and thanks to new company Shine For Life, founded by Gabrielle Gardner and Vicky Champion, the therapy is now available in Sussex at New Cottage Stables in Woodmancote.
Reassured I won't have to actually get on the horse, I imagine a kind of self-help session with Mr Ed, The Talking Horse - a couple of sugar lumps in exchange for a spiritual awakening - but Gaby puts paid to that idea as soon as I arrive.
"A lot of people imagine the horse with a pipe and slippers," she says. "But there's a lot more to it than that.
I think horses have a sixth sense. They touch people in a way many other therapies can't."
As soon as I enter the stables, one of them starts to harrumph and kick the door impatiently. It can probably smell my fear.
"Isn't he lovely?" says Vicky, stroking him on the nose. I stand well behind, nodding, before she sits me down for a one-on-one counselling session. Vicky has been counselling for more than 17 years, specialising in trauma and post-traumatic stress.
She asks me a range of questions from "Do you take recreational drugs?" to "Have you got any kind of psychotic disorder?".
Every "no" is greeted by a snort of derision from the horse next door (Vicky insists it's down to a respiratory problem rather than my answers).
She's a brilliant listener and I soon find myself telling her my entire life story. It's then time to rejoin Gaby in the field to start the session.
So why horses? Why can't we use cows or chickens?
"Many people are intimidated by the size and power of a horse," explains Gaby. "So if they manage to accomplish a task in spite of those fears, it will give them confidence to handle other situations in life.
"Horses are also incredibly honest, which makes them especially powerful." As we reach the paddock, Gaby suggests we stand and observe for a few moments.
One of the horses is chewing grass, the other is smacking his lips and baring his teeth.
"That's interesting," remarks Vicky. Gaby nods knowingly and I ask if it's a reaction towards me.
"Horses are very sensitive to smell," says Gaby. "Let's just say, it's an observation." A few minutes pass and Vicky enquires: "What are your observations?" "Well, I don't like the look of that one," I say, as the horse with big teeth looks up. "He looks far too volatile."
We stand and watch for a couple more minutes until Gaby tells me to "collect" a horse and bring it in. I don't want Scary Teeth, so I opt for the more docile one munching grass.
"How do I bring it in?" I ask. Gaby and Vicky are watching me but neither reply. So I ask again.
"How do you think you do it?" says Gaby, quietly. "Perhaps you'd like to give it a name." With absolutely no idea what I'm doing I make my way across the mud and occasional mound of manure towards the horse.
He's unperturbed and too busy chewing. "Hello, Horse," I say. "This way." He doesn't look up and continues munching so I try again with a slightly more authoritarian tone.
"Come on, Horse, this way." I give him a friendly pat on the nose but he still won't move. "He won't budge," I shout over to Vicky and Gaby, who are watching with anticipation from the fence.
I turn back to the horse. "Come on. Help me out. You need to go over there," I say, giving him a gentle prod. The horse looks up momentarily before repositioning himself so I am now face to face with his rear end.
I walk around to stand in front of him again and, with a flash of genius, try and coax him to the fence with a handful of grass. The session is about creative thinking, after all. While he's happy to eat it out of my hand, he still won't move and every time I try and encourage him, he shuffles around and turns his back on me.
"I don't think he's interested," I say finally, wandering back to the others. "Am I doing it right?".
"Can you think of anything else you could use?" says Gaby, with a pronounced nod towards the ground. There's a pile of equipment - collars with buckles and a rope but I have no idea how they work.
"What do I do with it?" I say.
"What do you think you do?" says Vicky.
I notice Scary Teeth sidling over at an alarming rate, so I grab the collar and trudge back to the docile one.
"Hello," I say, stroking his nose.
"I've got equipment now." He gives me a weary look as I wave the rope in front of him. "Come on, Horse," I plead. He gives it a brief sniff but after several attempts at trying to get the collar over his head, he's had enough and trots off to the furthest point of the field. "What can I do?" I shout despairingly to Gaby and Vicky.
There's a pause.
"What do you think you should do?" says Gaby.
I'm starting to feel the pressure now. It's a tedious task. It's freezing, I've been standing in the mud for 45 minutes, I don't know what I'm doing and the horse won't budge. The novelty has worn off and the stupid oaf keeps turning his back on me.
"How do you feel?" enquires Vicky.
There is a pause.
"Completely useless," I say.
"Why do you think that is?"
Determined not to let this horse "therapy" get the better of me, I decide to give it one last go, embrace the challenge and approach Scary Teeth.
I don't care if I get kicked. I slowly make my way over to him and, as I get nearer, he stops chewing the grass and looks up. There is little more than two feet between us and nowhere to run. "Hello, Horse," I say, praying he doesn't show his teeth.
"You're a nice horse..."
Knowing who's going to be quickest off the hoof, I tentatively put out my hand and he stays completely still, letting me stroke his nose.
Suddenly, he doesn't seem quite so scary after all. I notice he's got quite a shiny coat and a warmth in his big brown eyes.
Gaining in confidence, I try and coax him towards the fence but he doesn't want to go. I show him the collar and rope but am still unsure which way around it goes. "Come on, Horse. Which way does this go?" I am now asking the horse for instructions.
Amazingly, he holds up his head and holds still for several moments as if trying to show me but, afraid of hurting him by doing it wrong, it's impossible.
"Am I doing it right?" I yell over to Vicky and Gaby.
There's a pause.
"What do you think?" says Vicky.
Considering Gaby once signed up for a course where the objective was to teach the horse how to play football, I've got off quite lightly - but it's been almost an hour now. I try several more times with the rope until eventually the horse loses patience, repositions himself and deposits several dollops from his rear end.
Vicky calls me over. I walk away from the horse to the edge of the field.
"What do you feel you have got from the session today?" she asks.
"Not a great deal," I say, despondently. "I suppose the only positive thing was getting over my fear and making friends with the scary horse. But I completely failed to bring either of them in." "Look around," says Gaby.
I turn around and there to my amazement are both horses standing directly behind me, listening to everything that's being said.
"Is that just a coincidence?" I say, astounded.
"Coincidence or magic?" says Gaby. "That's the thing with EAP - there's definitely something." n Shine For Life will run an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy And Learning demonstration session on Saturday, March 1, 4 pm, at Plumpton College, Ditchling Road, Plumpton. Tickets £25. To book in advance, call 0800 9709848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, visit www.shineforlife.co.uk
What is EAP?Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is an emerging field in which horses are used to help emotional growth and learning.
Who is it for? Anyone who wants to be more assertive or improve their creative thinking and leadership skills. It can also be used for behavioural issues, attention deficit disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
Why do it? According to horse specialist Gabrielle Gardner, people are often intimidated by horses, so accomplishing a task in spite of those fears creates confidence when dealing with other challenging situations in life.
"Horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them," she says.
What do you think? Worth trying or a heap of manure? Tell us your views below