Horse Sense: Equine Theme is Used to Teach Life Skills

by Brenda Sexton, The Courier Herald
Release Date: August 16, 2006

Sarah is a petite, soft-spoken 10 year old, but when she's in the arena with a 16 hand, 1,110 pound full-of-life Tennessee Walking Horse she's assertive and confident.

As the horse paces the rail of the enclosure, Sarah, poised and strong, commands respect. Without the use of reins or harness, Sarah brings the horse to her side. She is strong, yet respectful.

"I've learned even though the horse is 10 times bigger than I am, I can still be an authority over it," Sarah said. "If I can control something so much bigger than I am, I can control them when they're not being nice."Sarah is talking about the students who sometimes badgered and bullied her at her Seattle school. What Sarah has learned from executive coach Peggy Gilmer and the horses, she can directly apply to her life.

"There's something magical about how Peggy works," said Sarah's father, Tom Elwood, who described his daughter as shy with a reticent personality. In just a few meetings, Ellwood said, Sarah's teachers have even noted her growing confidence.

"Horses teach us to be resonant leaders," Gilmer said. "A horse's survival depends on being attuned to others. They live in the moment and are incapable of being anything but authentic."

Gilmer lights up when her clients make the connection. "Sarah's quick to learn. What is really remarkable with her is she's really getting to know that subtlety of communication. Sarah shows the attributes of a leader – she's present, intentional, and authentic. She's not muscling the horse to get what she wants.

Gilmer knows what it takes to create a good leader. She spent 35 years improving organizational systems locally, nationally and internationally. The key is relationships," Gilmer said, "and how well we connect with others." Gilmer fell in love with executive coaching; "the clients signed up because they wanted what I had to offer rather than my services being pushed onto others below them. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven in the work."

About the same time Gilmer was diagnosed with cancer. "for me, cancer was the realization I was not living life like I wanted." "I bought the farm, "she jokes, "to keep from buying the farm." She literally bought a farm on the Enumclaw Plateau she dubbed Silk Purse Farm.

She began studying with a horse trainer and began seeing the connection between the trainer's leadership and relationship with the horse and what she had been developing in her clients for years. Horses, she discovered, show a leader when they are present, intentional, authentically authoritative, and connected – four essential attributes of good leadership. "Horses are awesome at all those things," she said. "Horse doesn't want to be a leader," But, they know what they want in one.

In 2004 She retired and started her own business. Today, strictly through word of mouth and her world-wide reputation, Gilmer has built a clientele. Her barn doors are open to high-powered executives, but also to youngsters, especially pre-adolescent girls. Her client lists include Bellevue and Kent School districts, Seattle Girls School,, General Motors, Ford Motor company, Citibank, London Underground, Boeing and NASA.

When she works with children like Sarah, Gilmer said she is helping them grow in self-respect and self-awareness and giving them the ability to have healthy relationships with others. "The most magical thing happened when kids started coming out here," Gilmer said. "Girls transform in one lesson. It's so thrilling to watch these girls."

Working with Gilmer, Elwood said, has given Sarah a stronger sense of self and allowed her to stand her ground. "These sessions have been so good for Sarah," he said. "she really looks forward to them. She has grown so much in her determination and ability to require a request be honored." At one point, during a recent session when Sarah was on her regular horse, Reba, she surrendered her power giving the horse control, but, Gilmer pointed out, she recognized it right away and knew what to do. She used her concentration to regain command and get back in charge, Gilmer said.

Gilmer decided to test Sarah with a different horse, the little more head-strong and less attentive Savannah. Sarah had to change her approach. A lesson not lost on Sarah and one not often lost on executives either. "I almost always give them two horses," Gilmer said. She has a stable of six, of various ages and personalities, at the ready. "Leader is a role not a power position and you have a responsibility as leader to flex your style of leadership to the follower."

A few minutes in the ring with a horse, and Gilmer can see a leader's strengths and weaknesses and select a suitable equine coach to help either change or reinforce those characteristics. Often clients select the horse they want to work with themselves and the choice is always telling.

"Peggy is really good at that, making the analogies at how a person handles a horse and what their personality is like and what they need to work on," Elwood said. And, as Sarah pointed out with a grin, "It's fun." "Any other method would be a chore," her father smiled. "Every girl's dream is to come work with horses."