Medical students enhance patient skills by interacting with horses

The exercise at Raven Hill Farms in Warwick is to understand the value of non-verbal communications


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  • Photo by Roger Gavan Eighteen first- and second-year medical students from The Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Middletown along with their professor, Dr. Alex Joanow (second from left), Director of Development Deirdre Hamling (far right) and staff recently enjoyed an unusual and intriguing afternoon at Raven Hill Farms, a local horse farm in the Town of Warwick.




  • Photo by Roger Gavan The session at Raven Hill Farms began in a newly constructed conference room with an overview of the program, a review of horse dynamics, and an emphasis on learning in a non-judgmental, open ended and fun manner. Facilitators included Director of Development Deirdre Hamling (speaking center), owner and operator of Raven Hill Farms, equine specialist Susan Stegmeyer and licensed clinical social worker Bonnie Malajian.




  • Photo provided by Deidre Hamling Following the introduction, the group moved to the large indoor arena where five horses of different shapes, sizes, and temperaments were the focus of the students to use their observation skills to interpret the horse's behavior. Breaking into smaller groups the students chose the horse they preferred to work with.



— Eighteen first-and second-year medical students from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Middletown, along with their professor and staff, recently spent an unusual afternoon at Raven Hill Farms, a local horse farm in the Town of Warwick.

The students participated in an innovative training program designed to transform the doctor-patient relationship.

Raven Hill Farms, situated on 36 acres, is home to Equi-Power Solutions, an equine experiential learning program for personal and professional development.

On Friday, March 11, the students took part in the Medicine and Horsemanship program, created to enhance the health care professional's awareness of non-verbal communication skills to more effectively connect with patients.

Program originates at Stanford

The program was originally developed by Dr. Beverly Kane and Dr. Allan Hamilton and initiated at Stanford University in 2005.

The program has expanded around the globe and is incorporated into the curriculum at Mass General University, UCSF, and University of Arizona to name just a few.

The session at Raven Hill Farms began in a newly constructed conference room with an overview of the program, a review of horse dynamics and an emphasis on learning in a non-judgmental, open-ended manner.

Facilitators included Director of Development Deirdre Hamling, owner and operator of Raven Hill Farms, equine specialist Susan Stegmeyer and licensed clinical social worker Bonnie Malajian.

Five horses, all different
Following the introduction, the group moved to the large indoor arena where five horses of different shapes, sizes and temperaments were the focus of the students to use their observation skills to interpret the horse's behavior.

Breaking into smaller groups the students chose the horse they preferred to work with.

As they groomed the horses they became aware of how their approaches needed to differ from horse to horse and were surprised by how much their intention effected the reactions of the horses.

In the second exercise, the group was asked to construct a pathway out of various poles, rubber cones and assorted balls that would represent their journey through medical school. And his or her task was to get each horse to travel the pathway without the help of any halter or lead ropes.

Each and every moment was filled with learning opportunities that were later discussed when the students returned to the conference room, where there were numerous comparisons of how the horses behaviors mirrored the intention of the students, often in remarkable ways.

These moments were designed to enable the students to discover how their actions, whether conscious or unconscious, played a pivotal role in their relationships with their patients as well as with the other students.

'Living, breathing biofeedback machines'

"As prey animals," said Hamling, "horses are sensitive to everything they see, hear and feel which can be interpreted by understanding their body language. We might even refer to them as living, breathing biofeedback machines."

The skills learned working with horses, she explained, help participants build confidence, mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

"Interacting with horses," said Hamling, "enables us to learn clear and effective ways to build trust and gain respect. Their cooperation with the students was based on a number of factors, such as rapport, trust, clear communication, patience, tone, body position, eye contact, respect of boundaries and how, if and when to touch. It is clear that these are the very same factors that enable patient compliance, cooperation and improved outcome."

'Holistic philosophy'
The entire program was embraced by all the students.

"This was an exciting, interesting and unique educational opportunity for the medical students from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine," said Dr. Alex Joanow, a founding partner of Horizon Family Medical Group and adjunct clinical assistant professor at Touro College. "It provided an experience to develop communicative skills that hopefully, the students will use throughout their careers. It certainly melds with the holistic philosophy that is the foundation of osteopathic medicine."

In addition to this program, Equi-Power Solutions offers corporate development, team building and leadership workshops as well as personal development sessions for individuals, couples, families and groups. All sessions are unmounted, interactive, solution-based with no previous horse experience necessary.

Raven Hill Farms is a private riding club and home to Jockey Hollow Pony Club as well as a full service equine boarding and training facility.

For additional information contact Hamling at 845-987-6965.

- Roger Gavan

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