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UW Oshkosh nursing students as ‘side-walkers’ guide a Neenah Joint School District student at Beaming Inc. in late October.

There is just something about horses and their relationship to people. Horses have a power and gentleness, a knowing, a grace that can disarm us, unlock our humanness, reveal information and draw out and magnify empathy.

There is connection.

That’s why a new and unconventional University of Wisconsin Oshkosh College of Nursing collaboration with equine therapy nonprofit Beaming Inc. of Oshkosh is proving so valuable to future RNs.

UW Oshkosh students in the College of Nursing’s community clinical experience have been spending mornings at Beaming’s rural Oshkosh ranch this fall helping lead Neenah Joint School District students with cognitive and developmental delays on horseback. The 40-minute horse-riding sessions and related activities provide a setting and experience far from the hospitals, clinics and examination rooms the future nurses will practice in.

And that’s exactly the point. The program pulls nursing students out of their element, helps them hone their assessment skills on a population of children who are sometimes more challenging to evaluate when they require care in a traditional clinical environment.

“The most we get out of this is learning how to work with kids who have disabilities,” said senior Rebecca Olson, one of seven UW Oshkosh nursing students who participated in the Beaming collaboration this fall. “We’re not going to practice in a horse arena on a normal basis. But in practice, we’ll see these kids, and we’ll also see them as grown-ups.”

A unique collaboration

Equine therapy programs are by no means rare in the United States. However, it’s hard to gauge how many universities and colleges have connected their nursing education programs with them for the purpose of sharpening nursing students’ assessment prowess as they work with children with cognitive delays and disabilities.

“Once they graduate, the students that are in this clinical program are hoping to work with a pediatric population as nurse,” said Sarah Pollesch, a College of Nursing instructor who has helped establish the Beaming collaboration.

This fall, there are seven College of Nursing students in the program, about the same number as two previous sessions. Beaming runs the program for six weeks with its Neenah school district partners. Tuesday mornings, Neenah students are bused to the ranch. UW Oshkosh nursing students meet them there and are assigned as side-walkers, helping lead and guide the children on horseback.

“We start in Week One, and the nursing students are able to see a baseline and are able to work with (the children) and get them to excel during their therapy,” Pollesch said. “… Some of the feedback from them is that they are so happy that they get to see (the children) progress.”

Olson said the program is, from her vantage, mutually-beneficial to both the college and elementary school students. Beaming’s horses serves as unifying presences and energy sources in forming a relationship between the two students.

“Last week, both of the kids I was assigned to clicked,” Olson said. “It worked. We got through. It was rewarding.”

Mary Fischer, a nurse-midwife, UW Oshkosh alumna and current associate professor of nursing at Marion University, serves on the Beaming volunteer board. She said the UW Oshkosh College of Nursing collaboration is one of the many creative, community-connected experiences her organization is pushing itself to continue developing.

“We wanted to look out into the community to see if there were some partnerships that we could form that would be beneficial, both ways,” Fischer said. “So, Sarah (Pollesch) was a great connection with UWO. We said, ‘Are you looking for a clinical site? How would this work?’ What they have done for us first of all is bring us fresh ideas.”

Collaboration a two-way benefit

Fischer and Pollesch said the UW Oshkosh nursing students have helped serve Beaming as they have benefited from the unique educational experience.

“The cool part about this program is not only do we come together and partner with the Neenah Joint School District to assess the kids, but we also complete our huge semester project out here. It’s about 40 hours of work, called an ‘aggregate project,’” Pollesch said.

She said the first project done involved creation of a program assessment tool that Beaming could use. Students developed a form that the side-walkers or lead instructors could use to log and measure the Neenah students’ progress.

“Are students meeting objectives, are they remembering what was learned that week?” Pollesch said, explaining the metrics. “The second project was an emergency-preparedness manual. The students created a video that can be shared with new volunteers and workers at Beaming – ‘What do you do if there is a cut; what do you do if a child has a seizure?’”

The manual and video were also valuable to the Neenah Fire Department. College of Nursing students helped educate paramedics about the potentially unique circumstances that might develop in the event of a Beaming rider injury, including understanding the different dynamics involved in assessing and treating a child with a disability.

“As nurses, you need know what is normal and what is not normal, and if something deviates, ‘can we work with that?’” Fischer said.

More opportunities to partner

The early win-win success of the College of Nursing and Beaming collaboration has both partners thinking.

Already, new educational partnerships involve the UW Oshkosh kinesiology and physical education programs.

“There is a student who comes with a visual impairment, and he will lay backwards on the horse; he pets it – things like that. It’s really cool to see,” said Sherry Gutsch, a UW Oshkosh physical education major with a minor in adaptive physical education who will graduate in December.

Fischer said there has even been some preliminary conversation with, for example, English department faculty interested in potentially integrating a Beaming visit and experience into a course examining the Renaissance. She said Beaming is also in line to be a partner in fall 2014 when the University’s transformed general-education program, the University Studies Program (USP), begins its first wave of community-learning experiences, another facet of USP all UW Oshkosh students will take part in.

“UWO has been so open,” Fischer said.

Meanwhile, the College of Nursing partnership continues to strengthen. Some of the early beneficiaries of the educational experience who have graduated and entered the workforce as nurses have continued on at Beaming as volunteers, Fischer said.

It’s not only an example of the values of lifelong citizenship and community-service taking root in graduates, it’s also a validation of Beaming’s mission, Fischer said.

“One of the nicest compliments we have is when students stay as volunteers,” she said.

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