From The Horse’s Mouth: Equine Education Helps Docs

Big, black, beautiful Thor (PHOTO COURTESY OF AMBER HERRELL)

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A creative approach to help physicians cope with the stress of their work is giving a few Banner Health physicians a day away from the bedside and putting them in the barn. Michele Alba, MD, family medicine faculty member at Banner North Colorado Family Medicine Residency Program, created Stables to Stethoscopes to use equine-assisted learning to help physicians reconnect with themselves and each other while developing skills to foster leadership, communication, and resiliency in the workplace.

Dr. Alba is partnering with Tamara Merritt, associate executive director with Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center. The goals of the program are to translate the skills learned by working with horses and trainers “from the barn to the bedside,” Dr. Alba says. “We hope to create more meaningful doctor-patient interactions, a better workplace culture, and more resilient and mindful physicians.”

Dr. Alba says the need for the program was identified through research into job satisfaction among providers.

As health care continues to evolve, the physician role is moving beyond just medical expertise with more emphasis being placed on leadership, resiliency, and excellence in communication. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized this as physicians were expected to lead, collaborate and help others be productive and engaged more than ever before.

As a result, physicians have taken the brunt of COVID-19 while still meeting demanding expectations. Like impacts seen nationwide, physicians locally feel burned out, she says.

“They leave work feeling overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and frustration. They become disengaged and disconnected from the joys that practicing medicine once brought them.”

Dr. Alba says she wanted to work with horses because previous research shows a positive relationship between equine-assisted learning and mindfulness as well as communication. She partnered with an industrial-organizational consulting firm, Cambio Consults, and Hearts & Horses to explore if a course like Stables to Stethoscopes could also develop medical leadership and have a positive impact on physician burnout.

“Horses can be wise mentors in this line of work as they provide non-judgmental feedback, boost confidence and promote mindfulness due to their flight instincts that serve as an instant mirror to reflecting a person’s intentions, emotions, and thoughts.

“In this way, they allow people in real-time to reflect on their nonverbal communication skills and learn to communicate more effectively and consistently in their actions,” Dr. Alba says.

Stables to Stethoscopes was offered to Banner physicians and resident physicians in Northern Colorado as a free course thanks to funding from the Medical Staff Foundation and Hearts & Horses. Physicians who were interested self-enrolled. Within three days of the program being announced, the 20 spots were filled. The first session took place on January 8, and the second session is on January 23.

Headquartered in Arizona, Banner Health is one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country. The system owns and operates 30 acute-care hospitals, Banner Health Network, Banner – University Medicine, academic and employed physician groups, long-term care centers, outpatient surgery centers and an array of other services including Banner Urgent Care, family clinics, home care and hospice services, pharmacies and a nursing registry. Banner Health is in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming.

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Founded in 1997 Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center located in Loveland, Colorado, is a respected leader in the field of equine-assisted services and has a strong history of program implementation and collaboration in the community. Accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, Hearts & Horses is well known for creating innovative personalized therapeutic services, research collaborations, leadership and training courses, outstanding volunteer programs, and community partnerships.

For more information, visit Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center at