A new program created between Banner Health and the Hearts and Horses program is teaching local physicians a new way of thinking about leadership and communication, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Michele Alba, family medicine faculty member of Banner Health’s Northern Colorado Family Medicine Residency Program, created the Stables to Stethoscopes program to help physicians learn a new way of thinking about being a leader and communicating in their work while hopefully reconnecting with their love of medicine after two particularly difficult years for doctors.

“Over the past two years, physicians in our community and around the world have borne the brunt of the pandemic to say the least,” she said. “Doctors have been asked during this time to lead their teams and patients into dark territory.”

She said there is a similar program in Tuscon, Arizona, where she went to medical school. She said that because of her knowledge of this program as well as what she has seen and experienced as a doctor during the pandemic, she wanted to bring the program to Colorado.

Alba was able to team up with Hearts and Horses, the local non-profit therapeutic riding center in West Loveland.

Nugget, left, a palomino quarter horse, and Ben, right, a Connemara pony, play together during a Stables to Stethoscopes session at Hearts and Horses in West Loveland on Jan. 23, 2022. (Austin Fleskes/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Alba said the idea behind the program is to help doctors, who can volunteer to participate in a roughly three-hour session, learn better ways to communicate with colleagues, lead a team and improve the way bedside by working with horses in different activities while developing their resilience to face the difficulties of work.

Tamara Merritt, associate executive director of Hearts and Horses, said that while the nonprofit’s primary focus is working with people with disabilities, she’s seen an increase in companies like Banner Health seeking training staff in these skills through equestrian programs.

“Businesses, corporations and other nonprofits are all hungry right now for some type of experiential opportunity for their employees, she said. “Horses are great at teaching a number of skills, from team building to leadership to mindfulness. What we’ve done is create programming that adapts to the needs of a business or a non-profit organization, what their goals are, (and) we are able to tailor that experience for them and create a really rich experience with horse intervention.

Banner doctors who sign up for the program are paired with a horse and a Hearts and Horses volunteer. Throughout the session, the doctors and their new four-legged friends will engage in several activities including round pen training, grooming, leading and more.

Alba said the first session, which took place in early January, went incredibly well and the doctors involved gave her excellent feedback. The second session took place on Sunday morning, bringing together a new group of doctors to experience learning on horseback.

A group of doctors — Maggie Reinsvold, senior faculty member of the Northern Colorado Family Medicine Residency Program, and Lexi Czmowski and Emily LaCount, both first-year residents with Banner Health — said they deeply appreciated the experience and that they could see it transfer to their future as physicians.

All three said the experience helped them connect more deeply with their leadership and communication skills.

“One of the reasons I got into family medicine was to create good relationships with my patients,” LaCount said. “Today I learned that even by spending just a few hours with a horse, I was able to change what I was doing…and I can do that with my patients because I am able to foster those relationships and determine what works best for each patient and move them through their healthcare.

Lexi Czmowski, a first-year resident with Banner Health, walks with Romeo, a Polish Arabian horse, during a Stables to Stethoscopes session at Hearts and Horses in West Loveland on Jan. 23, 2022. The session brought doctors through several activities, including steering horses around an arena through a small obstacle course. (Austin Fleskes/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Czmowski said the experience helped her hone her non-verbal communication skills, something she plans to carry over into her work to “engage with patients and make them feel seen and heard in our encounters.” .

Reinsvold said she thought the session was a great way to practice skills doctors often talk about in trainings, but in a very unique way. She also said it goes beyond just skills on how to work harder by taking a minute to slow down.

“I think the healthcare system, especially during the pandemic, we’ve been under a lot of strain,” she said. “Sometimes you feel selfish for taking the time, but (it helped me to) realize the importance of taking time for ourselves, for our patients, for our colleagues. I think the horses really demonstrated (this) in how they reacted to this.

This is something that Merritt said was built into the program.

“What we are able to give is a gift to doctors of this present moment experience and allowing them time to take care of themselves and (teach) what is OK,” said she declared. “Don’t go 9 million miles an hour, but take a moment to breathe deeply…and ground yourself and be in the moment with the horses.”

The volunteers, trainers and instructors who have helped the doctors through the different stages of the session feel that the program will have a powerful impact on the medical field.

“The biggest piece (of all this) is assessing a personality and recognizing that the energy it brings to a person is the same energy we bring to horses,” said Laura Bottoms, instructor at Hearts and Horses.

Sarah Matlock, a senior instructor in the department of equine science at Colorado State University, said the work doctors are involved in goes a long way toward reinforcing intentions over impact when working with someone.

“This non-verbal communication takes up so much space in a room, and often we don’t pay attention to it,” she said.

Alba said she hopes the program will help doctors in their day-to-day work.

“There are so many people on the front lines of this pandemic who have had to take on new roles,” she said. “Hopefully we can get them all involved…to fight (what) we’re all up against and start rebuilding the healthcare system that’s clearly so broken right now.”