From the braids in their manes and tails to their trim hooves, Ellie and Rascal were irresistible.
They took visitors in ones or twos or more, who came with exclamations about the miniature horses’ soft coats and complete cuteness.
A short walk into the parking lot to pet miniature horses isn’t a typical break for health care workers at Family Health West in Fruita, but it was a welcome one last week.
“It’s a really stressful time. Let’s do something fun,” said Heather Benjamin, public relations and communication coordinator for Family Health West, which includes Colorado Canyons Hospital and Medical Center.
It was the physical therapy department that came up with the idea for having a couple of miniature horses visit the hospital as a unique way for staff to relax even for a few minutes, Benjamin said.
The horses’ owner, Larissa Gilbert, who herself finds the horses to be therapeutic after her brain injuries, was more than happy to arrange for Ellie and Rascal to come by the hospital.
“They love them,” said Gilbert, who used to take the horses to visit residents of The Fountains and The Commons of Hilltop before the pandemic.
People who don’t want to talk, people who are frustrated, “just blossom” when visited by a tiny horse.
“I thought it was a great idea,” said Chris Taggart, chief medical officer for Family Health West.
If a staff member has an idea to encourage or provide some stress relief for their colleagues, he and others in leadership at the hospital are all ears, he said.
Even before the pandemic, the stress levels of those working in health care was of increasing concern, he said.
He pointed to a 2015 Medscape Physician Lifestyle Survey that reported a burnout rate of 46% among physicians.
“Numerous global studies involving nearly every medical and surgical specialty indicate that one in every three physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time,” according to a researcher quoted about the survey at aafp.org, the website for the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Consequences include patient dissatisfaction, more medical errors, addictions, higher staff turnover rates and suicide, wrote the article’s author, Dr. Dike Drummond.
“Yes, burnout can be a fatal disorder,” he wrote. “Suicide rates for both men and women are higher in physicians than the general population and widely underreported.”
Taggart also mentioned that there has been an increase in workplace violence in the health care industry in recent years.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bit.ly/3qxWMb2), those working in the health care and social services industries “are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury than workers overall.”
“COVID has only compounded a lot of that,” Taggart said.
People both inside and out of the industry must recognize it can be dangerous and health workers usually are seeing people who aren’t in the best moments of their life, he said.
Petting miniature horses won’t fix all this, but it is a recognition that there are problems, he said.
Ellie and Rascal’s visit was “just a healthy change to a stressful time,” said Errol Snider, a patient advocate. “It’s busier now and harder now” than it has been anytime in the past 18 months, he said.
As various medical staff members visited Rascal and Ellie, Snider was able bring out few patients in wheelchairs to coo over the horses in the afternoon sunshine.
It has been “absolutely great,” he said.