Horses and Healthcare: A Perfect Match
Angie Francart is constantly in motion.
Fresh out of nursing school 30 years ago, she went right into the OR. In a few years, she was promoted to neurosurgery coordinator, then became an RNFA in response to the needs of a busy neurosurgery department. From there, her promotions and career took her to director-level and Vice President-level positions by the end of her first decade of nursing.
Even though she is quite content in her current role as administrative director of surgical services at Meritus Health, based in Maryland, Francart continues her lifelong penchant for momentum. She and her husband Gary own Sleeping Fox Farm Thoroughbred Rescue, a rescue sanctuary, rehabilitation, and training facility non-profit for Thoroughbred horses who are no longer able to have a second career or race. In addition, they own Sleeping Fox Farm Eventing.
“I grew up with horses, so I don’t know a life without them,” Francart says. “My mom had a riding farm and gave me my first pony when I was four or five years old.”
But taking care of horses is demanding work. As she got older, Francart rebelled, vowing never to have anything to do with horses. However, that didn’t last long. As she moved up in her career, she began to miss her horses and longed to buy a small farm. She already owned a few horses that were kept at her mother’s farm, but the desire to have them close to her increased. She and Gary bought a couple of acres in West Virginia in 2004, which came with two more horses, making a total of five. Those five horses propelled them into a much larger passion, and they now have 22 horses, 12 of them living in permeant retirement in the sanctuary of Sleeping Fox Farm.
“I started riding a little bit more and it was great,” Francart says. “At that time, my mom was in the racehorse business and started thinking about retirement. She asked me if I wanted to take over, retrain and potentially rehome and sell the remaining horses. I said sure. Well, I still have most of those horses.”
Francart also began rescuing horses, mostly due to starvation, neglect, or abuse. The horses are usually wards of the state or county before they come to the sanctuary. When she was at Children’s National Medical Center, one of her mentors suggested she start a non-profit because at that point she was spending most of her energy and money rescuing. There was a real danger her finances would buckle under the strain. So, while working on her doctorate in health care administration she also wrote the articles of incorporation for Sleeping Fox Farm to ensure the sanctuary as a non-profit.
Ten of the horses are trained for what is called eventing, an equestrian triathlon where horse and rider compete in dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. In cross-country jumping, which is timed, horses run and jump across a large course of solid obstacles. Showjumping demonstrates athletic ability and accuracy. The dressage phase is based on precision, suppleness, and communication between horse and rider. This type of training was important in the past when horses were heavily used in warfare. Francart likes to call dressage “sand dancing, showing off their fancy footwork.”
“So that’s my chosen second profession because I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Francart says. “It snowballed in a way, and I say that because it’s extremely hard to be an executive running a surgery department, while also managing rescue and competition horses. I have five students helping me in exchange for riding lessons, so that helps. I just go, go, go. I don’t watch TV or go out to dinner or have vacations.”
Francart’s day consists of feeding her horses first thing in the morning, going to work at the hospital, and then riding, training, and giving lessons in the evenings. She trains for 12-15 events a year. She is also a safety coordinator for the USEA (United States Eventing Association), so sometimes she attends events in an official capacity to oversee safety and regulations during competitions (she is training to be a USEA certified instructor as well).
After saving up her PTO, Francart drives down to Florida every winter where she trains for about a month with her coach, who is on the U.S. Equestrian Team for the Olympics. She also trains with her coach close to home a minimum of one day a week and rides daily. There is some time off to rest herself and her horses, but they are in some stage of training constantly. From the outside, it looks like intense work, but Francart says when she is on the back of her horse, the world is turned off and it becomes a place to be mentally balanced and experience mindfulness. She takes to heart Winston Churchill’s quote, “There is something good on the outside of a horse which is good for the inside of the person.”
Whether they’re managing a horse farm in their free time or not, Francart believes directors of surgical services should surround themselves with the brightest and the best because they are a direct reflection of their own success. When she chose her clinical director, she wanted someone as smart or smarter than her running the ship when she’s down in Florida training.
“Be okay with deference to expertise, ground yourself with HRO (high-reliability organization) principles as a foundation,” Francart says. “I’ve surrounded myself with some amazing people. I have my absolute best person in SPD, OR, PACU, ENDO, CATH LAB, Preop Testing, Same Day Service, radiology, and anesthesia. It’s the team here at the hospital and my team at the farm that allows me to do this.”
Is there an intersection between running surgical services and running a horse farm/eventing? Francart says yes; they both require teamwork and trust to be successful.
“I have to rely on someone who has done it better than me and trust they are taking me down the right path,” Francart says. “A well-functioning team allows you to have the confidence and stability you need when you throw your leg over that saddle and go galloping off 30 miles an hour, jumping three and four-foot solid objects.”
Another way that horses and healthcare can collide is in the domain of health outcomes. The Horse and Human Research Foundation does research on how interacting with horses can impact health and wellness. PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), International accredits organizations to provide therapeutic riding services for people with physical disabilities.
“It is clear to me that there is a crossroads of health and wellbeing for both equine and human,” Francart says. “Horses teach leadership, trust, accountability, support, and most importantly compassion and love.”
When asked how long she saw herself juggling nursing and horse farming, Francart didn’t give a firm expiration date.
“I’m in my 50s, but I feel like I’m in my 20s. What’s great about the equestrian world is that we don’t age out. We had an Olympian from Hong Kong that was 72 years old. I love my work both at the hospital and at the farm. So, I don’t have an answer but probably until I run out of energy.”
Translation: no time soon.