Life as a medical student isn’t just about learning anatomy or practicing how to do a physical. At the University of Arizona College of Medicine, it can also include a little horsing around.
Students in Allan Hamilton’s From Barnyard to Bedside class are learning to be better doctors—from horses.
“You know, when you have a thousand-pound patient, you really respect him,” says Hamilton, a UA professor of neurosurgery who is also a horse whisperer. On his 17-acre ranch, Rancho Bosque, Hamilton works with horses to teach medical students the awareness and nonverbal communication skills they’ll need to really connect with their patients.
“There’s a big difference between being a doctor and a healer,” he says. “The doctor is just giving you information and is a spectator, and the healer says ‘we’re in this together.’”
Hamilton was a horse lover long before he was a healer. Although he grew up in New York City, he learned about horses and country living during visits to his grandfather.
The need to have horses in his life was what drew Hamilton to Tucson, and ultimately to Rancho Bosque.
“We actually moved out here because they had a great cancer center here, and I’m involved in surgery on brain tumors and that kind of thing, [and] we really wanted a place to raise horses,” he says. “Those were the two requirements: You had to have a lot of brain tumors, and you had to have a place to keep horses.”
But Hamilton kept his medical world and his horse world separate—until he noticed that he acted like a different person in each of his two worlds.
“I began to notice all this crazy stuff I was doing, like putting up x-rays and talking to the x-rays and not to the patient,” he says. “I’d have the patient behind me, which is ridiculous. And I started to think, man, I would never use that kind of body language training horses.”
Hamilton began to wonder if spending time with horses would help his colleagues and students work more effectively with their patients.
“Since it all originated with horses, I thought, well, it’s a crazy idea but let’s try it,” he recalls. “And it worked.”
Hamilton has now been teaching his From Barnyard to Bedside class for 12 years and has shared his curriculum with a number of other medical schools.
The course has been both popular and successful, according to Hamilton, because it forces students to tune in to their emotions and body language.
Because horses are so sensitive to nonverbal cues, students have to learn to quiet themselves and stay in the moment, Hamilton says, and that enables them to finally listen to their patients.
“You gradually discover that it isn’t about the horses. You think you’re working on the horses, but you end up working on yourself,” he says. “And so what happens with these students is they come back four years later and say, ‘This was the most important class I had in medical school, because it really taught me about myself.’”
Second-year medical student Engel Ottman found her first time at Rancho Bosque so transformative that she’s come back to do it again.
“As doctors, we’re very verbal people and we’re used to using our brains and our words to solve problems,” Ottman says. “And what I like about this is we have to calm down and connect with our energy and our bodies. And since in medicine we’re interacting with the patient’s body and energy and emotions, I think that’s why this is particularly valuable.”
For Hamilton, every trip out to his pastures is a valuable opportunity to learn.
“I once said to somebody, if you look at a herd of horses, just imagine a crowd of Tibetan monks coming toward you. They’re like sensei,” he says. “So I learn every single day, I can honestly say that.”