And relax: taking time for self-care by meditating with horses

We go on retreat to experience the healing power of horses with two women who are on a mission to empower women through mindfulness and equine-led meditation.
And relax: taking time for self-care by meditating with horses
Anita Siegl (Happy Feet Reflexology), Denise O'Donoghue (Irish Examiner), and Noreen Roche (Epona Retreat Centre) with Freckles the dog at a 'Back to Work' retreat in Rathcormac in aid of St Vincent de Paul.

Noreen Roche and Anita Siegl are particularly passionate about enabling women to rise within their careers, and they believe their areas of expertise can mould a fulfilling career path. Anita runs Happy Feet Reflexology from Sirona Clinic in Douglas, Cork, and Noreen provides a range of workshops at Epona Retreat Centre in Rathcormac, Co Cork, where I meet the pair ahead of a Sunday afternoon Return to Work retreat they are offering, with ticket sales benefiting St Vincent de Paul.

The ladies met through Network Cork, and after they were forced to adapt their businesses during lockdown, they joined forces to provide a unique experience they hope will help women who are anxious about returning to their workplace after lockdown. “We learned a lot,” Anita says of the last few months. 

Anita, who moved to Ireland from Hungary, usually works on her clients’ feet. However, due to social distancing and strict Government guidelines, she found a new way to treat patients over Zoom and made a surprising discovery about how children react to hand massage. “I only have one child and she’s 11. During the lockdown, when I was showing the hand reflexology, especially at the beginning, I had to include her [in the videos] because I needed to show the techniques on her own hand. The difference in her after hand reflexology was unbelievable.’ 

Noreen Roche of Epona Retreat Centre in Rathcormac with one of her horses during the Back to Work retreat in aid of St Vincent de Paul.
Noreen Roche of Epona Retreat Centre in Rathcormac with one of her horses during the Back to Work retreat in aid of St Vincent de Paul.

Noreen provides the meditation at the retreat, but it’s meditation with a twist: Her three horses play a central role.

“They’re trained therapy horses, I’ve trained them from foals,” she says.

“When we’re out working with them we bring in the energy of the horses because they’re seven times stronger than us than our energy. The horses open our hearts.” 

Anita and Noreen want to do more than just make women feel calmer at work. They want to help develop the leaders of the future.

The pair believe a gentler approach to a management-level position can have a strong impact on employees and Noreen says they have been doing online workshops with businesses to change the corporate mindset. “We show them that you can do stuff with love and kindness as opposed to the other way — the hard, masculine side. The nurturing [associated with femininity], I think, is very important.” 

After our chat, I’m very excited to meet the horses and try out the ladies’ meditation and reflexology techniques. I’m joined by 22 other women in the garden that afternoon and, as it is Ireland in July, the heavens open above us. We scatter, most of us to a nearby barn where Noreen adopts a ‘yes and’ approach to our environment and leads us in a spontaneous round of tai chi movements.  We move as one, channelling our energy and intentions to clear the rain. 

I don’t expect it to work and yet the sun reappears. I vowed to ask Google if tai chi is modern witchcraft once I got home. (I did Google it, and while it’s a shaky theory, I’m still not unconvinced An Post lost my letter to Hogwarts many moons ago). 

We move to a clearing beside Ruby, Lizzie, and Isabel — Noreen’s three beautiful horses. Noreen moves among the horses as she guides us in meditation as we sit a few metres from the horses (and 2m from each other), conjuring scenes and situations in which to find ourselves in our minds.

Anita Siegl of Happy Feet Reflexology guiding a group hand-reflexology session at Epona Retreat Centre in Rathcormac.
Anita Siegl of Happy Feet Reflexology guiding a group hand-reflexology session at Epona Retreat Centre in Rathcormac.

We sit like this for 30 minutes or so before a short break for tea. I mingle among the group, whose attendance at the retreat raised €946 for SVP, and discover some similar backgrounds. Many of those who came have nursing backgrounds, and it is comforting to think of these women finding some mental relief during such a draining time in our hospitals and other care settings. 

Others discuss the strain they have felt in recent months and the relief at now being able to socialise with other women, albeit from a short distance. We continue our conversations as we are led to a dominating tree nearby. We wind our way through the branches and find a covered clearing beneath the great yew, which is believed to be up to 200 years old. 

Earlier during our chat, Noreen told me the ruins of a Famine cottage stood beside the tree when she and her husband bought the property but it collapsed soon after they began building their home. Enveloped in the echoes of another difficult time in Ireland’s history, it is an atmospheric location for our hand-reflexology session.

Anita takes charge, explaining the areas of the body that are affected when we massage certain parts of our hands. Different areas extract some knowing sounds from many of the women: Office workers perk up when told where to massage to ease back pain, women with painful periods listen attentively when Anita discusses the areas for the uterus and ovaries, and a guilty giggle goes around when we’re told where to concentrate on for weight loss (only moments before we were eating cake). 

It is a very calming experience. As someone with more than my fair share of tendon troubles in the past few years, I’m used to massaging my writing hand. However, this new angle on a familiar routine feels different as it is combined with a breathing technique. 

We emerge from the branches revitalised, relaxed, and ready to take on the world.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up