I once had a boyfriend who was convinced he could reiki our overheated car into starting. Turns out he couldn't, and he burned his hands pretty badly on the radiator trying, but there are many people who swear by it. They're not using it on cars, but horses.
I knew these people existed—my mum is one of them—but it was a struggle to find them. I began to feel like I was looking for some decent drugs. The search was all through a friend of a friend using some old fashioned word of mouth, only the friend was my mum and the thing the horses were blissing out on was completely intangible.
I found Nia Edwards in the Ben Waldron racing yards just outside Ashburton, working with strung out race horses. The yard owner, Ben, was initially skeptical of alternative therapies, but the difference he sees in the horses Nia treats is undeniable. "They're just happier," he says.
Nia lists the stresses these horses regularly face—physical injury, long days, unnatural lights at night, transport vehicles. She sees her treatment as a way for the horses and owners to combat that stress and to get the best of the horses. Her work is a quiet and, as far as it can be, intimate moment with a powerful creature. She's a tiny woman, but she gets in close, her hands spread over the horse's skin, picking out key parts, the top of the neck, the breast, on top of the back with a corresponding hand under the belly. The process is remarkable for how little happens, although the body language of both Nia and the horse certainly suggests a change as they work together. From being alert, looking around, head held high, Lizzie, one of the yard's best racers and "a complicated lady", drops her head, closes her eyes and dozes off, which gave me the chance to ask Nia some questions.
VICE: How do you train for reiki?
Nia Edwards: I trained with a human reiki master who trained a group of us on the West Coast in Reiki and Reiki Master. That lady practices on the West Coast and what she does is not definitive but it works.
From training with her for people, how did you get onto horses?
When I went home to do my practice, I practiced on my horse, rather than my husband. I had a big horse, with a big energy about him, and I thought 'Well, why can't I do it on him?' Because a horse has the same make up, in my own opinion. A mammal that has a vertebrae has a central nervous system, so they feel pain, they feel emotion, and they hold emotion in their muscles the same as we do. The only difference to me is the different intelligence.
You've described reiki as like guided meditation. Is the horse guiding you?
It depends. You can guide the energy, you can guide the energy... your mind is your own. A different horse will have a different acceptance of the energy. Some horses will draw the energy from you, some horses will take you with it, some horses just let you in and you get all sorts of pictures. It's like going to the movies sometimes.
What do you visualise or see?
Sometimes the reiki will go straight to where the horse is sore. I've had horses with mud fever who draw it straight down to their hooves.
This horse, Lizzie, just takes the energy from you. She doesn't let you follow it, she drinks it up. You just don't see anything then.
Sometimes you'll see parts of the body. If a horse is releasing, I might see what it is releasing, and that's not always very pleasant. If it's releasing an emotion from anger, or it's releasing from a reaction to something a human's done, that can be quite uncomfortable.
So there's the horse's internal response, but what might an onlooker see?
A deep relaxation. Its eyes soften, their heads droop, or they close their eyes. A male horse will often drop their willie, they'll just relax out completely.
Ben is a very pragmatic guy, self-professed 'meat and two veg', but he's a believer in what you do. Is he typical of your client base?
I have a broad client base. Ben is unique, he's the only racing trainer I work with at the moment. But past racing trainers have seen the difference in their horses and of course that impacts their bottom line. A horse that is thinking, and got it together, will be easier to work with than one who is strung out.
You say there are lots of reiki practitioners for animals, but I really struggled to find you, and probably wouldn't have if my mum hadn't made friends with you on Facebook.
I think it's because it doesn't have a qualification as such. And, it lacks a scientific base, if I'm to be honest. So there are plenty of nay-sayers, so it's a very unique chosen market, and people are reluctant to put themselves out there. I'm out there but with qualifications in equine massage therapy and fascia release, and I follow that on with alternative therapies knowing it's a whole package for the animal. If people need it, they'll look for it and find it.
You do other therapies as well, and in the racing yard, you work with Renee who is a massage therapist. How do the therapies work together?
The difference is massage is a specific treatment for a muscle that looks at the fibres and cells, and it's hands-on, getting those fibres moving and getting the physical muscle working properly. Whereas the alternative therapy, by its nature, just doesn't have that tangible this-is-what-we're -fixing-here thing. That's why I go back to that deep relaxation in which the body does a lot of healing in that process itself. It can fix itself.
If you think of your own body, and you've had an injury or the muscle is stressed, and emotionally you're still stressed about it? Until you relax, any treatment you get on that is just going to be reversed by your own emotions, because you're just going to that the adrenalin and all the other bio-chemicals that come with stress, whereas if you relax, as well as a physical intervention like physio then you benefit from it much more.
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