On the first day of course No. 252 at the Stanford University School of Medicine, a pack of horses will be brought down from pasture near Portola Valley and herded into a corral, so the students can lean against the fence like wranglers and study at the stock.
They are looking for both leadership and followership in the horse hierarchy, as indicated by ear pinning, tail swishing, nudging and nipping. After observations, five horses will be culled from the herd and walked up to a sand arena where the medical students will get inside the fence and either hug the rails or tiptoe in among them.
They are not here to diagnose what might be bothering the animals. Medicine and Horses, an interdisciplinary course, is not that kind of class. The students are here to learn how to deal with humans. Clinical Instructor Dr. Beverley Kane's job is to help them find the clues.
"Horses are not socially repressed like human patients are," Kane says. "They are superb at nonverbal communication." So are people, if the doctor knows where to look. That is the theory behind this spring quarter elective. Horsemanship isn't a prerequisite. It is more of a hindrance.