Sonoma County Medical Association
Colleen Foy Sterling, MD
A skylight lets plenty of natural light into the office of psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Beck at St. Joseph Behavioral Health Services in Santa Rosa. Some of her patients are severely depressed, and perhaps the light gives them a ray of hope. It seems fitting that the skylight makes her office seem almost out-of-doors: she is an outdoors-woman, and being outdoors is how she keeps balance in her life.
Beck was born and raised in Ohio, but her family moved to Northern California when she was seven. She is now a busy psychiatrist. She has an office in Petaluma, where she focuses on geriatric psychiatry, neurodegenerative cognitive disorders, and late-life depression and anxiety. She also has another private practice at the WellMind Center in Santa Rosa, where she the first Sonoma County psychiatrist to offer transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for treatment of depression. As a consulting psychiatrist for St. Joseph Behavioral Health Services, she is also part of an award-winning team that forms a crucial safety net for area residents who struggle with acute mental health diagnoses.
Beck includes a variety of treatment recommendations in her repertoire. In addition to medication and TMS therapy, she is a promoter of healthy diet and exercise and knows how important nature and the outdoors are to mental well-being. Like many Sonoma County physicians, Beck practices what she preaches. As dedicated as she is to her busy career and her deserving patients, there is someone to whom she is so committed that she ventures out to Guerneville Road 4-5 mornings per week, at around 6 a.m. That special someone is her horse, Lucy.
Beck enjoys both trail-riding and dressage, which is often called “horse ballet.” Dressage riders use progressive training to bring out the best in the horse’s natural abilities. During competition, which ranges from amateur to world-class, the horse performs to its peak athletic abilities with minimal guidance from its rider.
Recently, Beck took time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions about her relationship with Lucy.
How does your activity and relationship with your horse Lucy help you stay balanced and well?
Lucy and I had a rocky relationship at first. She is very opinionated, and when I first got her, she literally walked all over me. I have since learned to be in charge, firmly yet kindly, which not only helps in my relationship with Lucy, but also personally and professionally. At this point we have settled on a quiet agreement that we will work together as a team. This was the first of so many things that Lucy has taught me: assertiveness training.
I read an article once about having the horse’s body and legs just be an extension of your own, like a centaur. The goal is to merge and become one. That takes a lot of concentration, effort and communication. The communication is, of course, mostly nonverbal. I think I like the nonverbal part the best. You might think that odd coming from a psychiatrist, but I talk so much during the day, it’s nice to be with someone and not talk, but still have a close relationship.
Lucy and I work together to accomplish things. It might not seem like an effort, just sitting on the horse, but it is actually work to get her to “collect” (pull her body together and drive from the rear), ride in complicated patterns and change gaits. All this without words! What a beauty that is!
I think being with Lucy keeps me healthy and well for several reasons: I am outdoors; I have friends that I ride with; it is good exercise; and my mind is free of work-related issues.
Would you even call riding a hobby? Would you call it something else?
I’m not sure hobby is an appropriate word. Because riding is hard work, and because it is so time-consuming, I think it has to fit in the category of “life passion.” I see riding as sort of a meditation. I have to clear my mind of all other things and focus on the relationship and the goals at hand.
When did you start to ride?
I actually didn’t start to ride until I was almost 40. I loved horses as a girl and visited the horses down the road and mucked out stalls occasionally, but I was not able to ride. In 2003, I took a class through Santa Rosa Junior College at the Cloverleaf Ranch, here in Santa Rosa. Initially, I was terrified. I trembled the whole time I was grooming and saddling the horse. I don’t think I shook once I was on the horse, but I sure was terrified. That class was extremely helpful. In fact, I took it twice!
I got Lucy in 2006. Lucy was 15 and was retiring from a sport called “reining,” in which the horses gallop at full speed, do patterns and slide to a stop. This can be very hard on their hocks, so it was time for her to move to something else. She has been an excellent teacher in many ways. I had to catch up with her, as she is a highly trained horse and I was a “green” rider.
Do you share your interest in horses with your patients?
I believe that all my patients and their family members know that I ride. I wear a necklace that is an artistic horse head, and my office has a large metal horse wall sculpture that I got in Mexico a few years ago. I do talk “horse” with patients occasionally. Maybe tell a few funny stories or share Lucy’s “assertiveness training” techniques if that’s relevant.
Do you have a scheduled time that you go riding? Or do you ride more spontaneously, when you are in a mood to do so?
This is a passion for me, so I do it as much as possible. Also, I feel that I have made a commitment to Lucy to ride her and get her out. She is a very athletic horse and needs to be ridden. I ride at least 4-5 days per week. Because of my schedule, I am usually out there early--as early as 6 or 6:30 a.m. I ride for a couple hours and head out to work. I am always in the mood to ride! On the weekends, we try to get off the ranch and ride in the vineyards or at one of the regional or state parks.
Have you ever worked with a horse program that helps children or adults with mental health problems?
I volunteered at Giant Steps, a therapeutic riding program in Petaluma, for a few years. I worked with children with autism, OCD, Down’s syndrome, and other emotional and physical issues. It was really fun to see the kids grow and change. A boy with autism told me a joke that was really funny. Humor is often difficult for people with autism, so it was nice to see him stretch out of his comfort zone. I think horses and animals in general give us permission to do that.
Do you ride with other people?
I have several friends that I ride with. A couple of them I met in the JC class and the others I met at the ranch where Lucy is boarded. Most of them were already riding or had their own horses. We do a lot: dressage in the arena and at shows; trail rides in the vineyards or parks; and camping at Pt. Reyes. We have also become friends and do non-horsey stuff too.
If you don’t have a chance to ride, how do you feel? What do you miss the most about it?
I start to get antsy and begin to think too much if I have not ridden. Riding is centering and calming for me. I also just miss seeing Lucy and being with her. Sometimes I go out to the ranch and get her out of her pasture and just let her graze and don’t ride at all. I just stand near her, watch her eat--a really comforting sound--and let her be. That’s probably the most relaxing thing I do.
How does your love of horses intertwine with your career choice and your vocation at this time in your life?
I think riding really helps me to be more present when I am with patients. In fact, more present in all aspects of my life. I think I have a different level of understanding on the nonverbal level. If I have to be a good listener and communicator with my horse, then I will hopefully be even better with people.
Dr. Foy Sterling, a Santa Rosa family physician, serves on the SCMA Editorial Board.
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