Frontline Hospital Workers Find Solace with Horses
By Amber Heintzberger
April 30, 2020
Across the United States, doctors and nurses are dealing with long hours and stressful work environments unlike anything most of them have known before. To combat the stress of long hours and uncertainty, healthcare workers who are also equestrians find relief in the barn.
Angie McDaniel and her pony, Squirrel, at the Katydid CDE in Aiken earlier this year, before the pandemic
Thank goodness for my pony! He has been my savior during numerous stressful events, COVID-19 included.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Angie McDaniel takes her 13 year-old Connemara pony, Blue Ridge Frolic (a.k.a. Squirrel), out for a drive on the dirt roads near her home in Landrum, South Carolina. McDaniel works as an acute care recovery room RN at a large Level 1 Trauma Center in Greenville, SC. Time with her pony is a necessary break to clear her head and de-stress after life at the hospital.
Currently working the night shift, McDaniel said her already intense work routine now has a few extra steps involved. “As soon as we walk into the hospital we have our temperatures checked, we are asked a couple of questions regarding having a fever and/or cough, and then handed a surgical mask that we are to wear for the entirety of our shift - mine is twelve hours.” She said that before she leaves work she changes out of scrubs, and washes with soap any skin that was exposed during the care of her patients. “Once I get home, straight to the shower I go before even heading out to take care of the ponies (and one VERY aloof donkey!).”
While the long hours and worry about contagion are taking a toll, she shared, “I'm trying to be sure to get extra rest, though night shift ensures that one is pretty much in a state of permanent exhaustion. Thank goodness for my pony! He has been my savior during numerous stressful events, COVID-19 included. There is something about the routine they require that enables me to decompress from the stress of the hospital.”
McDaniel said that while it’s one thing to practice universal precautions with all patients, now she and her colleagues have the added worry that a patient be an asymptomatic carrier. “Because all of my patients come to me directly from the operating room and have just recently been intubated and extubated, they tend to cough more than normal. Added to that, they are usually still too sedated after surgery to cover their mouths, so it really does create an environment that increases my risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
She continued, “There is nothing that brings me more pleasure than either hitching my pony up and going for a lovely drive in the country, or even just saddling him up, and going for a great hack in the woods or a fun gallop up the hills. Probably one of the things about my ponies that I love the most, is just hanging out in the barn in the evening listening to them munch on their hay. That is pure happiness and relaxation for me.”
Advanced level event rider, Kylie Cahoon, is also a nursing student, working in her hospital's COVID unit
A couple of hours south in Augusta, Georgia, Advanced level event rider and Registered Nurse Kylie Cahoon’s hospital unit was the first one to be transformed into the “COVID Unit”, where she worked for a couple of weeks.
“We had all positives and rule outs that didn’t need to be in the ICU,” she said. “At first it was crazy! We had a lot of really sick people. After the first day/night, they gave us more staff so we didn’t have as many patients, and it was better.” Fortunately, she said they had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), which has been in limited supply at many hospitals in the U.S.
Cahoon has continue riding but said, “For some reason after working a shift on that unit it makes you so tired. I have a really hard time getting up between shifts to go ride. So I would usually hack or something in between and then actually work my horse on the days I wasn’t working.”
To de-stress she said, “I have been going to the Hitchcock Woods to trail ride a lot with friends. That is distant enough but definitely helps keep us all sane! I have also been riding with my trainer, trailering in or just meeting in the ring, not going into any barns or anything.”
Her sponsor, Competitor Tent, is hosting a series of virtual dressage shows, but she didn’t enter because she is in the process of moving to Columbia, SC, where she took a job on a cardiac intermediate floor.
“This virus is serious,” Cahoon said. “I hope everyone is doing what they can to stay safe and healthy.”
California resident, Kate Chilkott, enjoys riding her dressage horse, Casanova, when she's not working as a critical care RN and board member at the Central Coast Chapter of America Association of Critical Care
I have always said I am a more balanced person with horses in my life. My horses are my mirrors, whether it is my calm or frenetic energy.
Across the country Kate Chilkott, from Carmel, California is a critical care RN and a board member of the Central Coast Chapter of AACN ( America Association of Critical Care Nurses). She works at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare (SVMH) as a staff RN on a progressive care unit, where staff cares for multisystem failure patients. She is also an Adult Amateur dressage rider who competes her PRE gelding Casanova, or “Cas,” at first and second levels.
Since the start of the pandemic, she said they are taking extra precautions. “I wear my goggles and a face mask all day, every day in addition to our standard precautions of using gloves and gowns, as well as hand washing and sanitizing between care of each patient and each procedure. My scrubs and shoes are changed before I get in my car to go home. At home, they go directly from a bag to the washer and me into the shower. I never wear my scrubs home anymore.”
Chilkott said that her horses - including Cas, as well as her three “lawnmowers,” which include a pony named Fritz, a Thoroughbred mare, Lexi, and a Dutch warmblood named Romeo - are her “relief valve." She shared, “I have always said I am a more balanced person with horses in my life,” she said.” My horses are my mirrors, whether it is my calm or frenetic energy.”
Because she is still developing a partnership with Cas, she sent him to trainer Alberto Conde at Woodmyst Farm in Gilroy, CA to keep him in work while she is putting in long hours at the hospital. Chilkott said the day California announced a shelter-in-place order, she loaded her horse on the trailer and took him to the farm by 9:30 that night, before the cutoff.
“I know I have gone through burnout and to some degree traumatic stress syndrome,” she said, describing how one day on a 30-minute drive to the barn she cried all the way. But as she pulled in the driveway, Cas trotted over and began nickering to her, and she felt emotionally balanced again.
She added that the farm, owned by Effrain and Donna Russo, has put protocols into place to limit but not completely close their facility, and she is grateful that she can still visit her horse and feel safe.
“I would l like to give a huge, heartfelt 'Thank You' to Alberto Conde and to Woodmyst for understanding how important it has been for not only me but all the other horse owners to come to their farm in this time,” she said. “I hope we will see easier times soon. I work with quite a few nurses who have horses and we all feel so fortunate to have them in our lives at this time.”
We’d like to thank all the frontline workers who are putting their life at risk to help keep us safe.