By Kelly Werthmann

LOVELAND, Colo. (CBS4) – Some of Colorado’s healthcare workers are using “horsepower” to help cope with stress brought on by the pandemic. Banner Health has created a first-of-its-kind program aimed at teaching resiliency and leadership by taking doctors from the hospital bedside to the barn.

“That’s the beauty of horses, they have so much to teach us,” said Dr. Michele Alba, a family physician with Banner Health.

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About six months ago, Alba teamed up with Horses and Hearts, a therapeutic riding center in Loveland. Together with Tamara Merritt, the facility’s associate executive director, they created a hands-on equine education program for doctors called “Stables to Stethoscopes.” It is designed to help physicians reconnect with themselves and their colleagues while also developing skills of leadership, communication, and trust.

“This course was really born out of the fact that we need more training to create better doctor-patient interactions as well as more resilient physicians,” Alba explained.

Healthcare workers have really taken the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, she added. Like all medical staff across the world, Colorado’s physicians are burned out.

“As you can imagine, the last two years in healthcare has been a nightmare,” Alba told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann. “If anything, it’s made us as physicians do more than just patient care. We’ve had to lead our teams through some really blind, dark times and it’s really called on some skills that we may or may not have learned in medical school.”

Such as non-verbal communication, mindfulness, even empathy. Those are skills horses are well-versed in, says Merritt. The animals act as a mirror of sorts, reflecting another horse’s – and human’s – emotions and intentions.

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“We, through our body language, are sending really subtle clues,” Merritt explained. “Horses reflect back almost immediately what’s on with us. If they don’t feel safe, they’re going to leave. What we talk to the doctors about is really being in tune with how you’re showing up.”

It’s a lesson of compassion and understanding non-verbal cues that physicians can take from the horse arena to the hospital.

“As physicians, a lot of times we walk into a patient room and we’re asking a billion questions,” Alba said. “But being able to pause with the horses today and pick up on how their ears are twitching or what way are they looking, their stance, we are able to take that knowledge back to our patients and our teams and it’s going to be a great way to communicate in a new way.”

Alba said the program is also a healthy stress reliever for physicians who may be struggling with burnout and pandemic fatigue.

“The horses are really using their ability to be present in the moment and reflect back to us what we may not know about ourselves,” she said. “They provide non-judgmental feedback that is really helping us connect with how do our insides feel with our outsides. I think that’s a really beautiful way to learn something new. “

Stables to Stethoscopes was offered to Banner physicians and resident physicians as a free course thanks to funding from the Medical Staff Foundation, as well as Hearts & Horses. Two 4-hour courses were offered in January, and 20 physicians self-enrolled within just three days of the program being announced. Already, Alba said those who took part are noticing a difference.

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“They said they feel more confident in their roles, they’re making more meaningful and impactful physician-patient interactions… and they just feel like they’re communicating with themselves and how they’re feeling a little bit better,” she said.

Stables to Stethoscopes is a pilot program for now, but Alba is hopeful it will expand to help more of Colorado’s healthcare heroes.

“There’s more than just physicians on the frontline who are feeling the burn out and stress of this pandemic, and I would love to be able to offer it to everyone,” she said.

Kelly Werthmann