By Wendy Sarubbi | June 10, 2013 11:03 am

Braving the humid weather on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, a dozen UCF College of Medicine students completed the college’s first “Medicine and Horsemanship” course designed to improve non-verbal communication between physicians and their patients.

The course, at Heavenly Hoofs Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Kissimmee, is led by Dr. Manette Monroe, Assistant Dean for Students, who is a life-long horsewoman and a pathologist by training. Dr. Monroe worked with Heavenly Hooves to establish a new equine-assisted therapy program for combat-injured veterans and is now using the program to teach medical students. She says horses are the perfect creatures for such experiences because they are so sensitive to nonverbal communication. By working with horses, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder learn how to gauge their own emotions and behaviors, and Dr. Monroe hopes medical students will learn how to more effectively use nonverbal communication to become better doctors.

“It’s a way to read into the body language that we often overlook because we’re so dependent on speaking to one another,” she said. “It adds that additional dimension so they become better patient-centered practitioners.”

Each of the seven sessions involved students communicating nonverbally with the horses to get them to do certain tasks. During a recent session, students had to lead the animals through an obstacle course without touching them. Elements like a heavy rain, and distractions of other people and fellow horses posed their own set of challenges. “Sometimes we can be a bit self-conscious, but this was a good exercise, because everyone was uncomfortable together,” said rising second-year M.D. student Julia Heizmann. “In this setting you feel like you’re not being scrutinized, because we’re all learning together.”

horses2Dr. Monroe hopes the course will increase the students’ confidence in their ability to communicate, especially in difficult situations. “You’ve faced down a 1,200 pound animal and convinced it to follow you,” she told the students after the obstacle course. “I want you to remember these lessons, because they will come in handy when all around you are losing their heads.”

The “Medicine and Horsemanship” course first began at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and rising second-year students Brianne Farmer and Julia Vaizer are studying its impact as part of their Focused Inquiry Research Experience (FIRE) Projects. Dr. Monroe is serving as their research mentor to determine the effectiveness of the course as part of the curriculum. The course is not yet available for academic credit, but based on the research results, it may become an elective in the future.

The students involved say they have experienced a great deal of personal growth after going through the course. “As medical students, we now work so much more fluidly together and we can accomplish a lot more than in the beginning of the year,” rising second-year student, Michael Metzner said. Others say they can already see how the course directly applies to the skills they will need in their medical careers. “Through our discussions it’s been really interesting to pick up on those non-verbal cues from the animals,” Erica Crump added. “The energy that you bring to patients is really similar to the energy you use in handling horses.”

Dr. Monroe says she has been impressed with the students’ eagerness to learn and grow. “They’ve not only been out here in the pouring rain, but in the blazing sun, and have just continued to participate,” she said. “I think they realize that this is a unique opportunity, and that the value of this experience can help them become better physicians.”

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