Her liquid brown eyes are full of understanding. She listens so closely as you share your woes with her, that you can actually see as her attention focuses on you. And her gentle demeanour gives you a strength you didn't know you had.

She's not your usual therapist – she's a horse. But she and her stablemates help turn around the lives of young offenders, at-risk young girls and domestic violence victims.

The horses' owner, Rosemary Wyndham-Jones, runs retreats and therapy sessions - as well as kids' camps to teach children about horses - from her farm on the Kaipara Harbour.

"Go tell the horse," is what Wyndham-Jones tells her clients, who may be young offenders, traumatised domestic violence victims or at-risk young women.

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And they do.

Often, says Wyndham-Jones, people tell her they have learned more from her horses than they have from years of therapy.

"It's about people learning about themselves – horses give feedback; they reflect what you're giving them."

Wyndham-Jones' approach is to teach people how to create a bond with the horse and learn to "stand their ground" against a large beast. It's a process that teaches aggressors to show respect but victims gain the opposite: self-respect.

Rosemary Wyndham-Jones encourages people to talk to her horses. Photo / Doug Sherring
Rosemary Wyndham-Jones encourages people to talk to her horses. Photo / Doug Sherring

"It's all about energy and focus. It's all about understanding the energy of the horse."

The programme starts with the individual entering the horse corral alone, rope in hand. They swing the rope to mimic a tail as Wyndham-Jones calls encouragement from outside the ring. She tells the person to "direct energy" at various parts of the horse's body and to "claim their space". Surprisingly quickly, the creature visibly responds, starting with a flick of the ears, a pause in its grazing before it is trotting obediently in circles following on an invisible lead.

Angry young men learn an aggressive approach is futile; vulnerable young women gain strength in their ability to direct such a large, potentially terrifying, creature.

And lessons are learned without Wyndham-Jones needing to give any instruction.

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"It's not me telling them what I see; it's them having the experience and getting it for themselves.

"I've had women break down, inconsolable. I just say 'go tell the horse'. That's all they need to do."

People have told her they've been in therapy "for years" but gained more from a few hours with the horses.

Wyndham-Jones emphasises she herself is not a therapist: "But this is a new type of intervention. Horses don't judge. They don't know if you're a young offender or a CEO."
Researchers at Deakin University in Australia say positive relationships between humans and animals facilitate human health and wellbeing.

"Evidence suggests that the very presence of an animal has a positive influence in altering children's attitudes about themselves, increases self-esteem and improves their ability to relate to others.

"Adults are also seen to benefit from contact with animals or pets in various settings."

Contact with animals has been shown to improve morale, reduce risky behaviour, reduce stress and anxiety and improve self-esteem.

The researchers continue: "Horses are believed to be unique in the manner in which they respond to humans and are believed to have the ability to read people in terms of their feelings and intentions. When people try to hide these feelings from the world or even themselves, horses can respond to the internal state of the human being."

As Wyndham-Jones says: "Horses are very big and strong but they're also very gentle and patient. And that dichotomy is powerful – much more powerful than any human being. They command respect."