Phoebe Oliver On The Benefits Of Equine Wellness Retreats at NIHI SumbaPhoebe Oliver On The Benefits Of Equine Retreats at NIHI Sumba

Phoebe Oliver On The Benefits Of Equine Wellness Retreats at NIHI Sumba

Nestled in one of the world’s most serene settings, NIHI Sumba’s journey with horses began over a decade ago, when CEO James McBride rescued their first horse, setting off a chain of impactful developments. What started as picturesque beach rides has evolved into a globally acclaimed equine therapy destination, redefining the intersection of luxury travel and healing experiences. In 2024, NIHI won the Unique Wellness Experience of the Year Gold award at Compare Retreats’ Luxury Wellness Travel Awards for its equine wellness retreat. We sat down with Phoebe Oliver, NIHI’s Equine Travel Designer and the founder of Olive Relations and The Equine Collective, who has shaped a pioneering approach to wellness through horses.

Image courtesy of Phoebe Oliver

Can you tell us about the new equine programmes at NIHI and what we can expect?

The story of the horses at NIHI is rather lovely. The first horse was rescued by CEO James McBride just over ten years ago. Little did he know the ripples this would cause. What started with sunset and sunrise beach rides has now developed into a leading equine therapy destination and an Instagrammer’s dream.

In July this year, the newly refurbished spa will become the first in the world to have horses located on-site 24/7 for wellness purposes. We have also launched the “Ride and Recharge” programme, which caters to both beginners and advanced riders. This programme invites guests to explore the island on horseback, visit villages, and witness the good works of the hotel’s charity, The Sumba Foundation.

Image courtesy of Jason Childs

Can you tell us about your first experience with horses and how this inspired your career? 

I believe I was sitting on a pony before I could walk. We had a very bad-tempered pony named Monkey who used to bite my sisters, but he and I were friends. When I toddled into the paddock, Monkey would protect me and as I grew, he grew older too. He used to be the holder of my secrets—my mother would often find me in his stable telling him about all my young angst! 

My mother was very experienced with horses. After my father had a heart attack, my mum and I were left to do all the fence repairs around our 50-acre property. It was tough at times, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Ponies were my first and best friends—and they still are.

What is equine-assisted therapy and what are the benefits of it?

Our equine retreat is run by the UK’s leading Equine Therapist Professor Andreas Liefooghe from Operation Centaur who explains “Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a therapeutic technique similar to how art therapists use paint—except we work with horses”. Horses are incredibly powerful in unlocking emotions and thoughts that traditional talk therapy often can’t reach. For instance, we’ve had success with teenagers with eating disorders who don’t trust adults, often because they are forced into treatment. These teens find comfort in talking to the horses and sharing things they haven’t told anyone else. It’s much like how one might confide in a non-judgmental friend.

Horses act as mirrors, reflecting the behaviours of the participants. As the session progresses, individuals begin to recognise their own behaviour in the horse. Since horses operate on a fight or flight basis, attendees must practice breathwork and focus on calmness before engaging in the session. This process alone fosters an incredible sense of grounding, enhancing the therapeutic work.

See also: The Aerial, BVI: An All-Inclusive Private Island Retreat In The Caribbean

Image courtesy of Phoebe Oliver

Who are the retreats most suited to and is equine experience necessary?

The retreats are most suited to those looking for answers that traditional therapy has not provided thus far. It can also be for those who are aware of a problem or issue they want to address but do not like the idea of a clinical environment.

What’s a common misconception around equine programmes?

One of the most common misconceptions around equine programmes is that you have to ride or be a horse lover to join. There is no riding involved and you need no previous involvement with horses. All you need is a desire to see change.

Image courtesy of NIHI Sumba

What makes these Equine Programmes at NIHI so unique?

NIHI itself makes these programmes unique, along with the horses under the incredible guidance of stable manager Evelien Akerboom. Many of the horses were rescued by the original horse whisperer of NIHI, Carol Sharpe, which makes working with them incredibly special. They have an innate understanding of hurt and recovery. What’s more, the setting of NIHI is one of the most peaceful in the world. The horses roam freely and come home when they are hungry. This creates a very special sight and results in a happy herd, functioning in its natural state.

See also: An Insider’s Guide to Wellness + Beauty in London

Image courtesy of Phoebe Oliver

What’s next for you—do you have any more exciting projects in the pipeline?

Working as the Equine Travel Designer at NIHI is truly my life’s dream. It’s a dream that began with a call with James McBride during lockdown. He was the first person to have faith in my idea of combining my 20-year career in travel with my lifelong passion for horses.

I now aim to help other hotels in a similar way. Recently, I started designing the equine programmes at Hacienda Montezuma in Costa Rica, which will be an amazing setting, and we are also working on a project in Sri Lanka. Horses bring together wonderful (and usually very strong) people. As Professor Andreas Liefooghe said, “Horses do what they have always done—they help us get to our destination a bit faster.”

Follow Phoebe Oliver on LinkedIn

Book NIHI Sumba’s equine retreats on Compare Retreats

Faye Bradley

Faye Bradley is the editor and business development manager at Compare Retreats. She is an avid writer, editor, illustrator and yogi who is passionate about all things wellness, travel and the arts.

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