Novice horsewoman that I am, I am standing in the middle of an equine training ring, with an agitated stallion circling about me, all snorting and pounding hooves. He is twice the size of me and 100 times as fast. If he did decide to charge, it is evident who would win.
Despite having ridden horses only once before – ten years ago – I use hostile body language to spur him on, flicking my rope while making alarming noises. I turn myself towards him, and he startles and does a volte-face. We repeat the process.
Somehow I am controlling the movements of this half-ton animal. I feel giant-like, invincible, a champion of the world. Then slowly, steadily, I relax my posture and the horse diminishes speed, his ear cocked towards me.
Gradually, breath by breath, I calm him, until finally he comes towards me. I turn my back and he follows, soothed, docile. He allows himself to be comforted and the feeling is indescribable. I stroke his neck and kiss him, high on the scent of hay and leather.
Novice horsewoman that I am, I am standing in the middle of an equine training ring, with an agitated stallion circling about me, all snorting and pounding hooves, writes Hannah Betts
If I can do this, then I can do anything – perhaps even sleep?
I’ve suffered from an inability to engage in this most basic act all my 48 years. I was an insomniac eight-year-old, and I expect to be an insomniac 88-year-old, should my unslept state allow me that long.
Over the decades, I’ve tried chamomile, lavender, valerian, caffeine bans, alcohol, no alcohol, cherry capsules, calcium, Nytol, melatonin, antidepressants, reiki, reflexology, massage, intercourse, foot patches, aromatherapy oils, eye masks, ear plugs, special socks, open windows, electric blankets, acupressure mats, blackout pillows that encompass my entire head, ‘advanced biofeedback systems’ (me neither) and a small chunk of amethyst clutched in the palm.
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I’ve used psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, light therapy, sleep hygiene, exercise, diets, yoga, hypnosis, the Alexander technique, a bruxism splint (to stop teeth grinding), nature noises, osteopathy, craniosacral therapy, sound-wave technology, and sleep hypnogram apps which track my nightly sleep cycle.
All of this means that I am nothing if not sceptical when I arrive at Lucknam Park’s Sleep Retreat. If four decades of strenuous effort cannot cure me, then I don’t rate the chances of a country-house hotel, however many stars it boasts (five, in case you were wondering), and however breathtaking its Wiltshire scenery.
The hotel has promised a weekend of horses and hypnotherapy ‘to restore the equilibrium of mind and body… allowing more control over your thoughts’.
Its high point will be a bout of equine therapy designed to help us confront – and then conquer – our fears.
I’ve suffered from an inability to engage in the most basic act of sleep all my 48 years, says Hannah Betts
The sessions will be run by Fiona Lamb, a clinical hypnotherapist more usually based at Harley Street’s Hale Clinic, and a specialist in insomnia, anxiety and addiction.
Her partner-in-crime will be Dawn Cameron, who has been Lucknam Park Equestrian Centre’s manager for more than 20 years. She is renowned for rescuing troubled animals and transforming them into happy members of her 30-plus equine tribe.
When I say I am sceptical, what I mean is that I am a stereotypical ghastly stressed, middle-aged woman. I burst out of my cab in a storm of swear words, with an empty stomach and having not slept for days, and demand to know what the hell we’re going to be doing.
I’ve had the most exhausting working week of my life and feel tired, wired and about to pass out. I worry I might punch someone -possibly myself.
There are four of us on the course: women between the ages of 40 and 60, all of us suffering some sort of midlife mental crisis.
For me it’s insomnia, for Ann and Lucy it’s work stress and a sudden nervousness surrounding driving, and for Rukhiya it’s feelings of purposelessness. The word ‘lost’ comes up a lot, no less ‘anger’.
Fiona, who has hair as long and golden as a medieval princess, asks me a few questions. Have I tried mindfulness? Yes. Meditation? Yes. Hypnotherapy? Yes. Epsom salts? I refrain from retorting: ‘I have tried bloody everything, or I wouldn’t be here’.
Still, Fiona is used to such reactions. ‘In my line of work, I’m invariably people’s last port of call,’ she says. ‘They come in desperate, having tried everything else.’
Also, she adds, hypnotherapy is not mumbo jumbo. ‘People think of it as fluffy. In fact, it’s extremely logical – an amazing tool to access the unconscious and achieve a fast, very practical result,’ she says.
She is nothing if not sceptical when she arrives at Lucknam Park’s Sleep Retreat in Wiltshire (pictured)
‘There are four brain states. Beta is our everyday mode, alpha our daydreaming, creative state. Theta is our meditative, hypnotherapy condition, and delta is where we go when we sleep.
‘We’re going to practise going into a theta state to enable your descent into delta, and do some ‘inner child’ work to tackle the root causes of your anxiety so that you can feel relaxed, loved and safe.’
I tell her I’ve never felt these things. ‘Then we’ll deal with that,’ she informs me.
‘Everyone knows how to sleep. It’s just that our mind forgets how, because we get sucked into fight or flight.
‘Tomorrow we’ll practise being in the moment with the horses. Tonight we’ll be testing our resistance.’
Cue music therapist teacher Tallulah Rendall, who gives us a sound bath.
First we are invited to beat ourselves about the body rhythmically, then we lie in the dark listening to Tallulah give it her all on a large gong. Said gong will lull us into a theta state and is ‘potent for shifting stuff’, she says. It’s like inhabiting the B-side of a Kate Bush single.
I remain resolutely alpha, obsessing about work – although I do rather fall for Tallulah’s rain stick: a giant dried cactus filled with beans that makes a noise at once liquid and percussive.
Resistance very much revealed, Fiona packs us off to bed with pillow sprays, aromatherapy oils, Epsom salts and her Mind Detox app (free to download from the Apple app store), which includes a meditation for racing minds.
Tense as my brain spirals, and too dog-tired to nod off, I manage three or four hours, before being up at 7.30am for an hour’s yoga. To say this feels counter-productive would be an understatement.
After breakfast, Fiona hosts a workshop in which she takes everyone in and out of theta states while talking about their anxieties.
Surly with exhaustion, I play hooky in the stables. I meet Hera, a beautiful chestnut mare, and as I bury my face in her mane I finally begin to feel human.
Sleep may scare me, but horses never have. I didn’t ride as a child, but ten years ago, I took myself off for a week in the saddle. By the end of my first lesson, my teacher had me trotting with both hands behind my back. By session three, we were jumping. Never have I been happier, before or since.
The relationship between humans and horses is as ancient as it is profound.
They thunder across the earliest cave paintings. Our intimacy with them stretches back 6,000 years to when we are said to have first tamed them.
Merely being with a horse feels medicinal, as Dawn agrees when she finds me nose to muzzle.
‘Those of us who own horses talk about their ‘therapeutic’ value. Being in the stalls grooming, feeding and mucking out lowers blood pressure,’ she says. ‘And that is even before the companionship aspect is considered.’
Equine therapy goes back to the 1950s when psychologists started realising how powerful human-horse bonding could be for inspiring change among addicts and the anxious and traumatised.
‘Horses do not learn through fear or pain,’ notes Dawn, ‘but from pressure and the release of pressure.
‘You can communicate with them by being absolutely honest and open – something you can use in other situations.
‘A horse is always in the moment. It doesn’t panic about the future or worry about the past. They respond to what’s going on around them because they are herd animals, forever on the alert.
‘We are predators, so can naturally dominate when we are reading their body language and they ours.
‘They mirror us emotionally, meaning we can learn how to control our own feelings by controlling theirs.’
My classmates join us at the training ring to watch as Dawn demonstrates ‘building a connection’ with a dappled grey stallion.
First, she sends him racing around in circles by making herself tall, imposing, physically confrontational. Then she subdues him with calmer body language, until he is following her wherever she goes.
The hotel had promised a weekend of horses and hypnotherapy ‘to restore the equilibrium of mind and body… allowing more control over your thoughts’
It reminds me of dating in my 30s: the more you ignore the horse, the more he wants you.
Our heroine is magnificent and serenely authoritative. I decide my goal is to ‘be more Dawn’.
Lucy is first to give connecting a whirl, emerging exultant. Rukhiya is on the verge of tears as she takes up the position. And yet she, too, manages to ‘join up’ with her horse, as she is cheered on by Dawn. She returns to us with a smile a mile long.
Ann refuses point-blank to go through the gate. She is bent into a hoop with fear. Dawn escorts her in and we watch as the magic happens. Then it’s my turn. I love my time in the ring. I feel confident, courageous, my best-ever self.
As I face my cantering stallion, it reminds me of my psychiatrist father telling me to face my fear. Only I’m not frightened, I’m ecstatic – utterly exhilarated.
‘You looked sassy; shoulders back, in control,’ recalls Rukhiya over our victory tea. ‘Although we laughed at you for cracking your rope like a whip.’
She, in turn, is delighted by the experience. ‘I can’t put the depth of this moment into words,’ she enthuses. ‘I’m 44 and feel as if it has made me ready for the second phase of my life.’
After dinner, Fiona hypnotises me. The first time, we discover the emotions I associate with sleep – a question no one has ever asked in 40 years of investigating my insomnia.
The terms that come up are ‘fight’, ‘messy’, and ‘struggle’. She asks when this started, and we trace it back to infancy.
Suddenly, I find myself weeping uncontrollably over my late parents’ marriage, followed by distress over my difficult birth.
Fiona asks me to reassure young Hannah, reframing things so that, instead of an unsafe child, I see myself as an arrow shooting ever forward.
She reinforces this in a second session, in which I associate this reassurance with how amazing I felt in the ring: like a woman who can take on horses and thus the world.
That night, I am plagued by nightmares in which I know I have a home, but cannot find it because I don’t know where it is, or what it looks like. I am also speaking a foreign tongue. It’s terrifying, but hilarious; my brain’s tectonic plates are clearly shifting.
The next morning, Fiona hosts a forest walk by way of a debrief. I beg Dawn for a 90-minute hack instead.
It is so joyous that the mere memory of it fills me with happy tears. My guru and I time our rising trots to the guiding tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
I get home that evening and sleep. I sleep the next afternoon, and the following evening, and all subsequent nights after that -deep, restful, fairytale slumber, which starts the moment my head hits the pillow.
I will be seeing Fiona next week for a top-up session. I also plan on becoming Dawn’s middle-aged pony club stalker.
The Lucknam Park Sleep Retreat costs from £924 per person for a two-night stay. The next weekend will be in March: lucknampark.co.uk/offer/ sleep-retreat-march-2020. For more information on Fiona’s treatments, visit fionalamb.com