It’s a warm, windy, beautiful morning at Healing with Horses in Buccoo, Tobago. It is July 19th, 2015, the weekend after a hectic two weeks of activity, as Healing with Horses staged its Buccoo Integrated Summercamp, which annually invites children from all backgrounds — many from traumatic households, or with mental or physical challenges — to come together, interact with each other, and enjoy creative, and therapeutic, play. The attendees experienced art, yoga, dance, singing, a wide range of inventive activities, and, of course, interaction with horses. Camp volunteers came from all over the world; Tobago, Trinidad, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and an assortment of other places. Many of those volunteers had been coming back to help at the summer camp for years.
Veronika La Fortune was born in Germany, but today lives with her husband — Trinidad-born, Lennon La Fortune — in Buccoo, Tobago. She is the Founder and Director of Being with Horses and Healing with Horses, and has lived much of her Life connecting with persons who had been handicapped. Her father was a teacher at an organisation that created opportunities for children who were disadvantaged, “Where he was working was a very big organisation. They are all over Germany and they also have workshops beside the school, where, then, the children or students who don’t go to school […] are integrated into workplaces; like wood-work and so on.” Their neighbour at the time, who was also a teacher at that school, would therefore bring the students home to help with building projects. Her father, similarly, would sometimes bring the children home, later adopting a toddler afflicted with Down Syndrome.
Meanwhile throughout this time, Veronika’s delight in befriending animals of all walks was in full effect. “I always loved animals. Since I’m young. I think when [I was] three-years-old I got my first rabbit, and I got a guinea pig, and I always wished for a dog.” She reminisces about finally getting a dog at the age of nine; a large, white, collie / Saint Bernard / German shepherd mix, “And he was my partner for fourteen years. Boy, I travelled with him. When I was in America for a year and a half he was with me, living in an RV. […] My friends had boyfriends — Hey, I had my dog! He went with me to the cafes [,etcetera].” She continues, “It was a very artsy time where I was kind of exploring Life, and I had lots of artist friends. He was always at my side, and I felt safe wherever I went. I was very independent, you know?”
Around the same time that she’d met her canid friend, Veronika also started pleading with her father to let her begin riding lessons. “Our neighbours in the village, a little further away, they had horses. And I asked my dad, ‘I would like to start riding lessons.’ […] There was a farmer [who had] two ponies and a horse, and he didn’t really do anything with them; they were just outside. And I asked if I could spend time with them, and be around them, and groom them, and feed them. And I really did enjoy that.”
She sometimes needed to ride her bicycle for an hour just to get to the riding lessons, and in only two years Veronika started to do competitions. She eventually got an ex-racehorse, and her father, who was very handy and enjoyed building (much as her husband, Lennon, does today), made her a little stable beside their family home.
While the traditional approach to humans’ interaction with horses has been to think of them as tools and use force to ‘train’ them, Veronika has developed her own approach. It revolves around understanding them as individual personalities, learning how to read their energy, body-language, and mindset, then communicate with them on those same terms. “Sometimes the way I introduce our horses [at Being with Horses] is extreme, because I want to change peoples’ minds. We’re going into the twenty-first century where I think we do have to speak up for animals. We need to learn to become animal ambassadors.” She says, “I really rather use [the term] ‘being around horses’; It’s not ‘working [them]’, you know?” She experimented with many ways of connecting with horses, trying many different things.
Around the age of seventeen, she decided to pursue a career as a ‘horse trainer’, working at a stable with around seventy-five horses, some very young. It was a lot of work, and she learnt much through the extensive experience gathered at this time. “I was very open, I had so much love for these animals, I was not really afraid. […] And [the horses themselves] were my biggest teachers, I think, because every horse has his own ways, and I had to flex to suit.”
After a year and a half at the stable, she found herself unable to continue in that kind of situation. She needed to feel unencumbered again, and so moved to the US with her dog for a year and a half, bought a Chevy with her best friend, and they cruised around, “like gypsies,” travelling from place to place while she pursued her other passion, which was for art. She plied a trade as a special effects make-up artist. “I said, ‘Horses? Great. But I need to find a different way, I don’t want to become a classical horse trainer.’ “
It wasn’t until 1996 that she once again started being alongside horses, when she joined Cirque du Soleil. She did this for a grinding five years, “So I was doing make-up there, but also riding a horse, and also doing some stage work. That was again — ten shows-a-week — it’s a lot of pressure; It’s not really time to play, you know?
“I think you also do enjoy your work because it’s your creation [and] you could stop when you feel like; When your intuition tells you that you need to stop. It’s so important to listen to your inner-voice. [But] I could never listen to my inner-voice [there]; The music was playing. Every day; two shows, you know? […] And the horse got more and more agitated, [and maybe] he just expressed my inner [agitation].
“You know after five years of experiencing this [I said]; ‘Thank you very much, I now move on.’ “
Veronika moved to Cologne, where she had previously lived for awhile, travelled a little, and eventually met and befriended Jean Lyons, a Trinidadian, gospel singer. They discussed collaborations on community projects and, in 2004, Jean invited Veronika to visit Trinidad and Tobago. Veronika quickly felt at home in the lifestyle and environment of the islands. “Germany, for me, people who know me in Germany, they never thought I’m really ‘a German’; I was always the gypsy, you know? I mean, doing the thing with the musical, Cirque du Soleil, the circus production, […] was for me very easy to live in different places. I can make myself at home wherever [I am]. Now, look at me! I hardly [even] leave Buccoo!”
“We created Being with Horses in 2007 with a horse named Jennifer, who was found in the rainforest.” Veronika worked slowly and deliberately to win over Jennifer’s trust and friendship. One fullmoon-lit night, inspired by the advice of a friend, Veronika decided to walk Jennifer from Speyside to Buccoo; A twenty-hour walk.
“The [organisation’s] name ‘Being with Horses’ came up because Jennifer was not a ‘riding horse’; we were not able to sit on her. So she basically taught me that the horse was not made for people to sit on!” Veronika laughs. “For me, just being around Jennifer — I enjoyed walking with her; […] we went for a beach stroll; we went for a stroll along the mangrove; through the wetland; I took her grazing, just like my team-partner dog, or my best friend!”
Three years later, in 2010, Healing with Horses was founded when inspired by friends from The Torres Foundation of Washington DC, who enquired about special camp activities that they could offer to their physically-challenged members; adults and children, from across the Caribbean. The Torres Foundation arranged a special workshop for Healing with Horses, which taught the then newly-formed organisation methods of interfacing with blind children.
Today, Being with Horses is one of the top things to do in Tobago, according to Trip Advisor, winning a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ in 2013. Healing with Horses, meanwhile, continues to attract over a hundred children, as well as passionate volunteers from around the world, to its annual events.
“And we actually embrace people who never had any experience with [horses]. It’s easier to work with them [as opposed to the] professional rider who says, ‘Where’s my equipment? Where’s my bit (the metal in the mouth)?’ And they, some of them, they don’t trust that is also works like this.
“But you know, I say, ‘It’s a partnership. It’s not your sport equipment.’ […] It’s about [using] love and attention — And that works with children, that works with the garden, that works with anything in Life.”
She continues, “You need to acknowledge the horse as it is; As something very precious. And you have that bond with the horse, and the horse has the bond with you. You give the horse trust, the horse trusts you. It’s a ‘give and take’.”
Veronika considers the day that she walked Jennifer to Buccoo to be one of her proudest achievements. Despite own her doubts, but encouraged by the coaxing of her friend, Jenny, who lived in the rainforest, Veronika persevered. “I couldn’t imagine myself walking down, and then actually when I did, and I found my pace, I just walked very slowly, [but] without stopping. Well, I stopped by [Jenny] for half an hour, but you don’t stop too long because otherwise your muscles get sour; you just walk.
“That was a twenty-hour walk. So I started at ten thirty in the morning, and the next day at six o’clock in the morning, I was here.”
She recounts the trek as it ran through, “Speyside, Charlotteville, Parlatuvier, Bloody Bay, Castara… you know, we reached! — Step by step.
“And this is how Life also [goes]. You have to see the little goals. [You put] short-term goals there, instead of just [saying]; ‘Oh gosh! I can’t do it!’
“Yes! — Step by step. Step by step. And you will see, you will reach.”