What Horses Can Teach Us About Ourselves and How They Help Hone Our Professionalism Skills

March 25, 2024

Virginia Rentko headshot

Written by guest blogger Virginia Rentko.

Horses are big, and for the uninitiated, maybe big and scary. Not only are they a good metaphor for a veterinary student entering the clinic and subsequent clinical practice, but they can also teach us a thing or two about just how to do the latter with grace. As a prey species, horses are sensitive to their environment. They don’t possess a lot of reasoning skills, so they find comfort in a herd. They communicate constantly with others in the herd, warning of potential dangers and moving each other quickly in response. At an average of 1200 lbs per horse, that’s a lot of motion to avoid being in the way of. So, when your classroom is a paddock with horses free to move as they please, your learning is memorable.

Experiential learning through exercises with a small teaching herd and facilitated debriefing offers opportunities for self-reflection on how we communicate, how we cope with adversity, and how we work in a team, all skills valuable to a veterinary professional. It takes mindfulness of one’s energy and intent to motivate a horse to trust and work with you without halters and lead ropes, just like working in a busy veterinary hospital with many different team members, patients, and clients. One example is being rushed and not being mindful of what the horse (or client) is experiencing. Approach a horse who is not on a lead rope with the intent of “getting the job done” because you have much to do, without checking the horse’s concerns about noises of rustling leaves or a tractor in a nearby field, and the horse will give you immediate feedback. The horse will walk away from you repeatedly until you acknowledge the state of the horse. A few extra seconds of centering before approaching the horse is met with success. What would a hospital look like if we did that every time we interacted with others?

A team that includes multiple people and horses in the paddock raises the stakes for communication and leadership, where clarity of communication between people, and between people and horses, is paramount. When everyone (people and horses) has “something going on in their lives,” a moment for a huddle for centering and planning before beginning an exercise can mean the difference between success and failure. The parallels for clinical practice are many.

Our article in The Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, “Equine-Assisted Learning—An Experiential, Facilitated Learning Model for Development of Professional Skills and Resiliency in Veterinary Students,” describes a semester-long “Paddock-to-Practice” course in which veterinary students practice self-awareness, critical communication, and leadership skills to lean into resolving adverse situations. There seems to be no better teacher for professionalism skills than a horse.

VIRGINIA RENTKO is a board-certified internal medicine specialist. She is an adjunct clinical associate professor at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and former medical director of the school’s teaching hospitals. When she isn’t facilitating growth of leadership and professionalism skills in veterinary students, she works in a start-up focused on healthy aging and longevity for companion animals.

Equine-Assisted Learning—An Experiential, Facilitated Learning Model for Development of Professional Skills and Resiliency in Veterinary Students was published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 50.4 and is Free to Read until April 1st.

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