Prefects Learn to Lead

by Kath Roth, Director of Senior School

Silk Purse Farm lies nestled in the countryside of Washington State, about twenty miles southeast of Seattle. Its name reminds those who visit that it was once a pig farm, although these days the animals which live there have a much loftier calling. The residents of Silk Purse Farm (Dewy, Savannah, Luna, Spot, Whoopi, and Reba) are Tennessee walking horses and their paddocks and arena have become the training ‘classroom’ for the Grade 12 prefect retreat.

While using horses to teach leadership is not a new concept, it is not a well-known one. Indeed, to the uninitiated, it probably sounds a bit ‘out there.’ But what it does is simplify the leadership learning process: in the wild, horses are prey animals, and so they have to be highly in tune with their environment. They are also herd animals and want to be led. In attempting to lead a horse, a person must be 100% present, connected and clear in intention; only then will the horse follow. Indeed, as Ariana Strozzi points out in her book, Horse Sense for the Leader Within:

    Horses insist on knowing who is leading each step of the way…[they] don’t care about a person’s title or authority or their IQ. They are inspired by a person’s clarity of purpose and ability to stand tall and take action. They can be willing performers or resentful employees. Their generosity of spirit and deep patience allows us to refine our leadership style and develop new skills.

The prefect retreat actually begins long before the trip to Silk Purse Farm. In June of their Grade 11 year, the incoming prefects complete a detailed relational and behavioural questionnaire which becomes the springboard for a knowledge base of self-awareness—a key component of leadership development. They also do some preliminary work with Peggy Gilmer, who owns Silk Purse Farm.

Then in the fall, they head for Washington state. Half of the retreat is spent at ‘camp’ with a focus on school values, leadership behaviours, team-building exercises, and the tackling of a real school leadership challenge. The other half is spent with Peggy and her horses, where theory is put into practice. The students meet the herd sitting in a circle inside the arena and establishing connection with them. While the horses ‘nose’ in and out of the circle, Peggy shows the group how to claim their space as leaders.

Over the course of the afternoon, each student enters the ring with a horse of his/her choosing, learns how to connect with it, raise and lower their assertiveness, and eventually lead the horse toward a pre-determined goal. This is done without reins or harnesses. As in the human world, horse temperaments vary, and students quickly learn to fine tune, as the approach used for one animal may not necessarily work with another.

What do the prefects take home with them? As one prefect explained, “when you are in a leadership situation and you are hoping to take a horse or a group of people alongside to a final goal…if you as the leader can’t keep your focus, you don’t make progress. You can’t fake your authority.”

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