By Wendy Sarubbi | July 28, 2014 3:06 pm

At first the medical students were apprehensive as they chose a horse to approach at the Heavenly Hoofs Therapeutic Equestrian School in Osceola County. The well-trained horses, meanwhile, used to all kinds of riders, looked on nonchalantly. It was the first day of a seven-day course that teaches students to read, communicate with and maneuver a horse around an arena without a lead rope. Working with large unfamiliar animals is out of students’ comfort zone­– and that’s the point, said Dr. Manette Monroe, assistant dean for students at the College of Medicine who runs the Medicine and Horsemanship Program. The course is designed to help students improve their nonverbal communication skills, patience, bedside manner and teamwork.

Equestrian therapy has been used for decades to help children and adults with mental and physical disabilities and more recently to help combat veterans suffering from injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But using horses to build the communication skills of medical students is new, and UCF’s program is one of less than a handful across the country.

Like humans, horses have different personalities. And they are very sensitive to nonverbal communication. As prey animals, their first reaction is to flee. Even a quietly nervous person can make a horse nervous in return. So through Medicine and Horsemanship, students learn how to adapt their verbal and nonverbal communication styles to best fit the horse.

On a clinical level, the students listened to the horses’ hearts, gut sounds and examined their teeth and eyes, which made them more aware of how sensitive horses are to different situations. “The students pay attention to the non-verbal queues, watch expressions, posture more closely as well as pay attention to eye contact and facial expressions a little more, and realize that there’s a richness of communication that they hadn’t noticed before,” said Dr. Monroe. That extra attention to detail translates into better care for human patients, she said.

By the end of the week, the 10 students, some whom had never worked with horses before or were afraid of them, demonstrated teamwork and camaraderie as they gently moved the horses through obstacles around the arena.

“What we’ve seen is an increase in self confidence reported by everyone who took the course… and a decrease in loneliness, which we did not expect,” said Dr. Monroe. “Medical school is stressful and after the course the students felt more connected to their fellow students.”

This was the second year the program has been offered and some students are using the experience to evaluate the psychological benefits of Medicine and Horsemanship as part of their Focused Inquiry and Research Experience (FIRE module).

A lifelong horsewoman, Dr. Monroe hopes to offer the program to nursing, psychology and physical therapy students in the future to help together different disciplines that work together to care for patients in the real world.

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