FOUR years ago John Hankinson was a master farmer, earning a "good living" plating the horses at John Gosden's Manton yard. If you had told him then that within a year he would turn his back on being a blacksmith to become instead a registered healer, treating both humans and horses, the chances are he wouldn't have believed you. Yet here he is, standing in a box at Manton, not a spare horseshoe in sight, gently running his hands over an unraced three year old with a history of hamstring trouble.
The colt flinches, his muscles twitch and ripple down the length of his spine, even though Hankinson hasn't actually touched him. You notice how his hands hover a few inches above the horse's torso, and how it jolts in the manner of someone having their reflexes tested by a hammer hitting their knee. Contact is, and isn't, being made. It's not a physical contact, and yet the horse is clearly feeling, and responding, to something quite dramatic.
"Reiki," Hankinson says simply as he pulls down his white protective mask. The use of ancient healing techniques is playing a slowly emerging role in the treatment of racehorses, with Hankinson at the forefront. Those expecting a kaftan-wearing crackpot, or someone looking like an extra from a Harry Potter film, would be disappointed on meeting the 46-year-old. Simply dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he has the muscular build that you would expect of his former profession. As he works his way around a horse, "looking at all angles", his aim seems more straightforward than mystical: to find concealed reasons for poor performance or inexplicable injuries.
He has a track record to suggest that whatever it is he does, it works. The horses he has treated for Gosden include his 1,000 Guineas winner Lahan and last year's Golden Jubilee Stakes winner Malhub. For Terry Mills, not a man likely to tolerate mumbo jumbo, Hankinson has worked on Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner Where Or When. Peter Chapple-Hyam, while at Manton, was the first trainer to use Hankinson on a regular basis. The 2,000 Guineas winner Rodrigo de Triano, Derby winner Dr Devious and French 2,000 Guineas Victory Note were among the horses he treated. Hankinson says: 'Victory Note was the key one, because three days before going to France for the Guineas he was lame, and they couldn't find the problem. They said would I like to see what I could find, so I had a look and then the horse was sound pretty much straight away." Reiki is just part of his "holistic approach" to treating horses, but an important one nonetheless. The word translates as universal energy or life force.
The concept originated in Japan and is described on one website as "an invisible, gentle energy that works by balancing a person's energy system, promoting the body's own natural ability to heal, on all levels; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual." It adds: "Scientists now know that this energy, sometimes known as chi or prana, does exist throughout the universe. In fact, everything in the universe is made of energy (a comment Hankinson himself makes)." In its simplest form, the use of Reiki consists of the practitioner placing his/her hands on or close to the recipient with the intent of bringing healing and willing for the Reiki energy to flow. You actually can sense it at work as Hankinson treats each horse. In fact, if he puts his hands close to you by way of demonstration, you even feel it for yourself. Some kind of energy is definitely transmitted. Hankinson uses Reiki to check a horse thoroughly. A particular problem, such as the hamstrings, may already have been identified, but there could be less obvious injuries caused by a horse-silently compensating for its original problem. He recalls how the Terry Mills - trained Norton was struggling to run straight and was found to have an overdeveloped left shoulder, and underdeveloped right one, because he had been compensating for an injury. Much of Hankinson's work takes place with eventers, and he finds the more intimate contact between a horse and its groom or rider in that equestrian - field more likely to unearth problems. "It's much more difficult in a racing yard," he says, "as it is not always the same lad who rides the horse. One lad might think the horse is fine and the : ether might feel he's got a problem, and it can take a while before a small injury becomes known. "So you don't get the same consistency as you would in eventing, which : tends to be a lot more hands on. That way any abnormalities tend to get, picked up a lot quicker. Sometimes racing yards haven't got the time to delve too deeply."
Hankinson certainly delves deeply, reminding you that Reiki is a "a physical, mental, and spiritual" treatment. Its powers are such that it can be used over extremely long distances; Hankinson, for example, treats a human client in Los Angeles. Some people, of course, may find that hard to believe. "I am sure they ' will," he says. "I can only explain that it is a universal energy, it has no boundary. There are more things to this life than seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing. When I started out as a farrier I am sure I would have been very sceptical, too." He describes horses as "very receptive" to his work. "They are far more open to it than we are and are much more telepathic than we think, much more aware than we are." So much so that Hankinson recalls an occasion when his heart started pounding unexpectedly, only to be told later that a horse he had been treating suffered an irregular heart-beat.
Another part of Hankinson's work can involve the use of a pendulum. The one he shows me is made of opal and amethyst, "but it could just as easily be a ball bearing". The pendulum is used to ask questions and receive answers. If it moves to the right in a diagonal line, the answer is yes, if it moves to the left diagonally, the answer is no. "I ask it questions of a horse; it allows me to run through mentally what the problem might be," he says. Hankinson adds that "there are other beings that you can look to for assistance," and that "horses may have guardian angels that can guide the pendulum to the right answers." The right answers are also found by more orthodox measures. Hankinson believes greatly in checking a horse's teeth: bad teeth mean bad steering, and bad steering can lead to all sorts of troubles further down the body. Watching him bend and manoeuvre a horse's limbs in all sorts of gentle directions, somewhat in the manner of an osteopath, you are struck by the range of his methods.
This is a hard man to pigeonhole. As if to prove it,. he produces a white, rectangular box that looks like one of those old, mini electronic keyboard players. Although this one does a bit more than play Greensleeves. He calls it a Russian scanner (SCENAR). It was developed to treat cosmonauts while they were in space, allowing them to heal themselves, It cost him £3000, good money, you think, when you examine the high performance results he shows you. Ailments ranging from a common cold to asthma to muscular injuries all have an astonishingly high success rate - in some cases, 100 per cent, or close to that - when treated by this machine. The only thing it seems to struggle with is frigidity, where the cure record is below 60 per cent.
The scanner (SCENAR) works by stimulating electronic messages to the brain, prompting it to release a series of beneficial qualities - strictly known as neurotransmitters - such as serotonins and endorphins. Not many people know this, but the brain produces 50 identified active drugs, Endorphins are the brain's painkiller, thought to be three times more powerful than morphine. Seratonin is likewise produced by the brain and is regarded as a key chemical in killing pain and "feeling good." It strikes you as a gem of a machine with which to embellish Hankinson's other range of treatments, Although he was uncertain whether to plunge into his .new role four years ago, he now finds himself "inundated with work - there aren't, enough hours in the day, not enough days in the week." So much so that he barely has to advertise his skills. He says: "I used to shoe horses for Barry Hills. I doubt very much that he knows I do this. I expect he still thinks I'm a farmer. "Can anyone do it? A lot of people Say 'how do you do it?' and you show somebody what you are doing, but it's whether or not they can actually feel it. That's not something you can actually teach some-body," Hankinson believes ',he has long had an intuition for horses. "I've always had a feel for horses' well-being," he says. "When I was plating a horse I could always tell when he was ready to run his race. "During my apprentice farriership at David Nicholson's, he would come along and ask 'how's that horse feel?' Some of it was tongue in cheek, I'm sure". Not any more it isn't.