By Addy Hatch, WSU College of Nursing

Horses have a lot to teach nurses, says Jayne Beebe, a senior instructor at the WSU College of Nursing in Yakima.

Some patients are nonverbal, for example, or can’t communicate with health care providers because of a language barrier. Some patients are a little scary. And horses, like patients, react to a person’s body language and can sense when someone isn’t “truly with them,” Beebe said.

Beebe knows horses very well. She grew up riding, and started an equine center in Yakima where using 21 rescued and donated horses she offers therapeutic riding for chemically dependent youth, foster children, and veterans. Now she incorporates equine therapy into an elective class offered to WSU College of Nursing students and to other health care students in the Yakima Valley.

In one exercise, for example, students link arms and follow one person’s instructions in how to halter a horse, which teaches them about the need for precise communications.

In another, a student starts off leading one horse that represents a patient, then Beebe gives the student a second horse representing a worry about something they forgot to do. A third horse represents what the student is thinking about for dinner, and so on, until eventually the horse representing the patient is just part of a string.

“They did not have to take the horse, I just offered them the horse,” Beebe said. “That’s where they need to stop and think, ‘What’s for dinner is not important right now, I just need to be taking care of this patient.’”

The elective class Beebe offers is called “Presencing,” and includes components on spirituality and mindfulness. Beebe recently presented her research on building emotional self-awareness using horses at the Sigma conference in Indianapolis.

One student who took the elective class in the spring said of the experience, “This class should be implemented into the nursing program. We learned a lot of valuable information – presencing, therapeutic touch, nonverbal communication, etc. I believe all nurses should learn this at some point in their nursing education; all of the elements of this class can help a patient in their most vulnerable times.”

Working with horses “can be so powerful,” Beebe said. “I see how many times students are wrapped up in their heads, and they’re not really present with their patients, the team they’re working with, or the families.”