Kids Learn to Be Better Friends by Befriending Horses
Peggy Gilmer’s students learn how to get along better with people by communicating with horses.
PHOTO: PEGGY GILMER
You could take a child struggling socially to a psychologist or a counselor. Or you could send them to Peggy Gilmer’s farm on Whidbey Island. Gilmer is a horse trainer who has found that when kids learn to interact with equines, those skills will help them better relate to their human peers.
Gilmer’s goal is to impart four qualities to her students — presence, connection, open-heartedness and authenticity. She tailors her one-on-one lessons to the student, depending on the interpersonal skills they need to work on. She teaches them to be a “partner” with the horse by understanding how to communicate with the animal.
“The lessons that kids get from working with me are how to be as soft as you can be when asking someone to do something, and how to be tougher when you need to be,” Gilmer says. “I teach them how to escalate their asking appropriately.”
Because horses can sense a person’s emotional state, students learn that authenticity is key to any relationship, Gilmer says. She recalls a 10-year-old inner-city student who arrived at the farm too afraid to even enter the arena — so the first session took place outside of it.
“When you honor your fear, the horse will honor your fear as well,” Gilmer explains. The girl arrived to her next session eager to face her anxiety and go inside. “Watching her light up as she moved the horse around without a lead rope or halter is indelibly carved in my mind,” Gilmer says.
Other students have the opposite problem — they’re initially aggressive and forceful with the horses, and the animals shy away from forming relationships with them. It serves as a wake-up call to the children.
“Bullies will quickly see that they’re bullies. I show them how to be soft with the horses and they see immediate results.” The lessons translate to their peer interactions, and they report back to Gilmer that they’ve begun to make friends when they had struggled to do so in the past.
“I see kids transform before my very eyes,” she says. “It's pure joy to watch.”
Lesson Information: Gilmer works with children of all ages. Training involves approximately five sessions, and she provides parents with tips on how to reinforce the lessons at home. peggygilmer.com/blog or 360-825-7554