When Veronica began her journey with Saybrook, she was already providing equine assisted psychotherapy for people with eating disorders. She also teaches children with special needs how to ride horses, especially children on the autism spectrum. While on the surface it seems she uses the horses as a therapy tool, a closer look reveals the real interaction. The way the horses respond to her clients embodies the essence of humanistic values. They do not judge and they do not apply labels. They offer assistance and their interaction with the clients helps Veronica to identify and address issues that are relevant to the therapy session, allowing her to intuit from the horses the information she requires to address a client’s issues. One might say the horses provide a vehicle for healing. Consequently, she is doing her dissertation work on the embodied experience of equine assisted psychotherapy.
Veronica has a smooth, familiar British accent that sparkles when she speaks, much as a person’s eyes twinkle when they begin to discuss their kids, or a favorite pet. She attributes the way in which she was encouraged and supported by the Saybrook faculty as the basis of her decision to choose this subject for her dissertation research. Unlike other schools that are predominantly driven by faculty interests, Saybrook’s faculty strongly supports the students to pursue their own passions, something Veronica identified as the “little bit of crazy I bring to the therapy session.” This unconventional, or student-centered approach to research is one of the biggest reasons why Veronica and other students come to Saybrook. The value faculty place on this creative approach is what Veronica credits for an enriching and fulfilling journey at Saybrook, which seamlessly blends her existing work with her graduate educational goals. Veronica declared, “At Saybrook you have free range to go explore your own thing and you’ll have support. Because my own thing is so different from the mainstream, I felt a real freedom in that, and so I quite often did my own thing,” she said.
Veronica’s journey has been supported by Saybrook professors, particularly Louis Hoffman, and the international outreach that the university offers. She traveled to China in 2014 and presented on equine assisted psychotherapy as it relates to body language and cultural differences, which then led to the presentation at the APA Division 32 Society of Humanistic Psychology 2015 Conference on the same subject, also strongly encouraged by Saybrook faculty. Most recently, she was invited to present at the first ever Existential Therapy World Congress in London in early June 2015. To fund her trip back home to her native United Kingdom, Veronica offered a workshop there right before the Congress on equine assisted therapy, which sold out in advance quickly enough for her to purchase her airline tickets and plan her presentation for the Congress. Veronica was especially excited about the workshop because a member of Saybrook faculty and a fellow student were going to attend, bringing together the different threads of her professional life.
Veronica co-authored a presentation at the London Existential Congress with fellow student Monica Monsilla on the Saybrook Tribe, and also did a solo presentation on equine-assisted therapy. She related how she changed the solo presentation right before the conference. It was originally to be on the theory of equine assisted psychotherapy, but Veronica opted to change it after her experience in her workshop the previous weekend. The reason why illustrates the nuanced way existential humanistic values, imparted on Saybrook students from day one, allows flexibility for the profound to enter into their work.
An old school friend of Veronica’s heard that she would be presenting at the Congress and agreed to be Veronica’s pseudo-client for the private workshop. This friend had endured breast cancer, a stroke, heart surgery and a plethora of other physical illnesses which had a tremendous emotional impact on her. Consequently, Veronica supported her as she spoke about her fears of dying and leaving her young son behind, as well as her friend’s own grief at the loss of her mother to cancer, which then extended to the greater audience when an attendee related her experience of losing a child to cancer. In addition, Veronica’s friend had endured an accident while riding a horse, so the process of facing her fear of riding again was manifested into a process of facing the journey of dying. “The synchronicity in the workshop was magical,” Veronica exclaimed. The friend’s husband, who happens to be a professional photographer, captured the entire session on camera, and that footage became the basis of Veronica’s adapted presentation for the London Congress. Just watching that footage was so moving to Congress participants that Kleenex was subsequently required. The whole experience exemplified to Veronica the beautiful way that living in the moment and humanistic existential methods can create a space for healing that eclipses traditional psychotherapy. Her journey through her friend’s fears brought the entire community to a new place of understanding.
Veronica describes Saybrook as a “tribe.” “Saybrook sees the gifts that each student brings to the greater extended family or tribe, and cherishes the diversity of each member,” she said. With Veronica, it is a unique way of reaching a very challenging population of people. Yet perhaps it is the very substance of the Saybrook mission that Veronica represents: doing equine assisted psychotherapy with existential and humanistic values allows the transformational change in each client she serves to progress toward a more just, humane and sustainable world.
By Maria Taheny