The Coach: Gilmer turns to horses for dispensing management secrets

By Jeanne Lang Jones
Puget Sound Business Journal
January 27, 2006 – Vol. 26 No. 40

Original Article (PDF)

A serious bout with cancer in the early 1990s forced Executive Coach Peggy Gilmer to take a hard look at what she was doing with her life.

"It was a wake-up call," said Gilmer. "it told me, 'You're not living your life.'"

To decide what she needed to live more fully, Gilmer turned to a tool she frequently had used to help executives from The Boeing Co. and other organizations order their priorities. Gilmer laid out her personal ambitions in a decision matrix.

Gilmer was startled to discover that what she wanted most was her own horse farm. She couldn't have guessed then that horses would bring her back to coaching and become her newest tool for training corporate leaders.

Simply wanting to make the best of whatever time remained, Gilmer told herself a dark running joke: "you better buy that farm before you 'buy the farm.'"

Gilmer settled on a 5-acre spread in Enumclaw that was "as homely as homemade sin" but sat on a hillside with views of a thoroughbred horse farm below and the mountains beyond. Gilmer renamed it Silk Purse Farms. She bought a stable of Tennessee walking horses and hired trainer Darik Anderson to work with them.

"He is magic with horses," Gilmer said. Watching him work, she realized, "This is just good leadership. This is the way people need to be led."

Gilmer realized working with horses presented many of the same challenges that working with teams of employees did. As herd animals and prey, horses can sense when someone is putting up a false front. They'll ignore those who lack confidence and shrink away from those who come on too strong.

Using her horses as training tools, Gilmer now teaches a variety of corporate and non-profit clients about leadership on her Enumclaw farm.

Working with animals has several advantages, Gilmer said, compared with teaching the same skills in a dry PowerPoint presentation. Her clients retain more of what they learn longer and are less worried about losing face.

Additionally, working with the big animals without reins, they learn leadership is less about giving orders or making big gestures. What matters most is having a clear notion of where they want to go and a gut-level conviction that the horse will follow their lead. Then it's a matter of sticking to it until performance meets expectation. It's a quality Gilmer calls, "holding intention."

It's the key skill needed to move employees from their initial, "I can't" to "I want to" and, finally, to the "I'm committed to" stage needed to take effective action.

Healthy now and happy in her work, Gilmer jokes she's become a "people whisperer."