An animal lover and her miniature donkeys are helping people with mental health issues.

Claudia Nicholson is preparing to officially open her equine therapy centre at Downmere Farm in Poynings, north of Brighton, in March.

The 51-year-old said it has been a dream of hers since she was a child to open such a place, which will help children and adults with anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health concerns, as well as anyone who thinks they would benefit from the sessions.

She has already been carrying out sessions at the farm with her two miniature donkeys Tom and Basil and her ponies Tango, China and Pippa and horses Bailey and Blue.

The Argus: Tom and BasilTom and Basil (Image: The Argus)

The mum of two purchased the land in 2020 and transformed the “dilapidated” chicken shed into a stable and office.

She had a soft launch for the business last year and took on a few people through personal recommendations.

“My vision has always been to create a space for people to come, be in nature, be around the animals, feel safe and share the experience that I first experienced as a child,” she said.

“I work with people who have anxiety, depression, addiction.

“I’ve worked with a lot of teenagers in the past year.

“They’ve really come out of this pandemic in a bad way.

“Two years on a screen is enough to make anyone anxious.

The Argus:

"You come here, you turn your phone off and we connect with nature and orient ourselves to the fresh air and nature."

Clients will come to the farm for several sessions and will first talk through what they wish to get out of the therapy and how comfortable they are with the ponies, horses and donkeys.

There is no riding involved.

"It's really up to the client to decide who they would like to do a session with," said Claudia.

"Some might just want a cuddle with the donkeys.

The Argus: ChinaChina (Image: The Argus)

"There's no pressure here you just come and feel and hopefully when you leave  you'll feel better.

"It's a therapy of the body rather than the mind.

"So for people who might have been in therapy sessions with a psychotherapist talking about their problems this is much more subtle.

"You don't really have to say anything, it's all about feeling.

"I start with a body scan to bring people into their bodies before they come into connection with one of the animals."

The Argus: Claudia's poniesClaudia's ponies (Image: The Argus)

Claudia first felt the therapeutic benefits of a horse when she was 11 when she was given a pony, when her parents separated.

"I was pony mad," she said.

"I would spend every moment I could at the stables with this pony.

"And it was my therapy.

"I would sit in the stables and work through all of my feelings and I had this incredible animal that held me and I felt safe.

"It got me through a very difficult time in my childhood and I now realise that was what is now known as equine therapy.

"But it wasn't a thing in the 80s."

Claudia had been working in London for years when she heard about equine therapy centres in Arizona.

She then went on a riding trip to Patagonia.

"I did a trip across the Andes and I thought I've got to be with these horses full time," she said.

"I need to do what feeds my soul and makes me happy."

She retrained in the Epona method in 2012 for three years to become qualified in equine therapy.

The Argus: Claudia Nicholson with her horse BaileyClaudia Nicholson with her horse Bailey (Image: The Argus)

And her desire to open the centre was further strengthened during the pandemic.

"We need that connection with animals and nature and they can really show us a happier way of being," she said.

"It's been a dream of mine since I was a child but I had to wait until this time in my life.

"I couldn't have done it 30 years ago because I didn't have that life experience."

Claudia said more people have become more open minded about equine therapy.

"Since the pandemic and the awareness of mental health people have become more understanding of it and it's become a very recognised form of therapy," she said.

The Argus: BlueBlue (Image: The Argus)

As well as individual sessions Claudia will run group workshops and in the future would like to take Tom and Basil to care homes and children's hospices.

She would also like to form partnerships with mental health trusts.

"I would love to put a smile on little children's faces," she said.

"And people at the end of their lives."