Local life-skills coach uses horses to help connect with her clients

For the CDTOctober 27, 2013 

After many years in the newspaper and magazine business, Erika Isler today finds herself in a new occupation and delving even deeper into the human story.

She has become a life coach.

Isler always was interested in the human experience and people’s life stories, something that fueled her writing as a journalist.

After 11 years as editor of State College Magazine, the 46-year-old said, she was looking into a story for the magazine on life coaching that uses horses. She found a workshop in Hume, Va., that used horses to facilitate learning and went to watch a weekend session in 2009. It sparked her interest.

“It really, like, changed something in these people, even just over the course of a weekend,” Isler said.

She said she realized that after 11 years as an editor, she had done everything that she wanted to do and it was time to try something new.

“And I thought, ‘If I’m going to make a transition, this feels like a good one,’ ” she said. “It felt like a good change for me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in many ways, I think that people who are coaches have sort of always been coaches.”

She said her ability to be a life coach developed over her lifetime and evolved through her career. Isler said she always has had a desire to help people, and the ability to be a good life coach came with wisdom and age.

Isler resigned from the magazine in 2010 and within 10 months was a Martha Beck-certified life coach. The certification gets its name from Martha Beck, a life coach who created a program to train others in her style of work.

According to the Martha Beck website, the goal is to “clear away the obstacles that are blocking people’s best selves. (They) add nothing, (they) simply subtract what isn’t working.”

Shortly after completing her certification, Isler said, she had the opportunity to train in Scottsdale, Ariz., with Koelle Simpson, who held the weekend workshop that originally sparked Isler’s interest in coaching using horses.

In a little more than a year, Isler completed her second certification, this one in Equus coaching.

The certification, through on-site training and online work, allows her to incorporate the use of horses in her coaching.

She said it just “made sense” to add this skill after witnessing how useful it was.

“I always felt there was something sort of really fascinating about horses and the role they play in our lives,” she said.

Using horses to facilitate learning in coaching is different from what many might think, Isler said. She works with the horses at Buffalo Run Farm, a short distance from State College.

Her clients don’t ride the horses as they do in animal therapy. Instead, the session is about watching the client and horse interact. She first talks to the person and then has him or her enter a round pen and do some work with the horse while next to it.

It is then that she watches how the horse responds to the human’s interaction to help understand how the client is feeling, Isler said.

“I’m watching the horse. ... What’s the horse’s energy around this person? There (are) parallels for that space between what I see happening and, more than likely, what’s happening in that person’s life,” Isler said. “Horses are like perfect mirrors for how we move through the world. And if we pay attention to (them), they will show us.”

She said that horses are helpful because they are nonjudgmental and don’t care how important a person may be.

The experience of Equus coaching is powerful, and in the space with a horse, a person can see who they really are, she added.

Linda Puder, one of Isler’s clients, said that while she has had only one or two sessions in the pen with a horse, this type of life coaching is a really interesting technique.

In the ring, Puder said, there is less pressure because the horse is a nonjudgmental third party.

“It gave me a whole different perspective on how to process these issues,” she said.

Stacey Warner, a colleague of Isler, said that thoughshe lives in California, she and Isler hold co-facilitated workshops with horses when she is in the area.

Life coaching “is highly intuitive work,” Warner said. “A lot of spirituality comes into the work I do.”

Isler, whose wild, blond hair belies her calming, introspective presence, said she was always a big reader and into writing.

The New Yorker from Sleepy Hollow attended Syracuse University and interned at the New York Daily News while in college. She moved to the State College area in 1996 after having worked for MagazineWeek in California and Folio, as well as working as a freelancer in public relations.

Isler said she always found writing stories to be cathartic and a learning experience. She said that as a life coach, she gets to learn about people’s stories but can now help them as well.

“Being able to help people really facilitate their lives sort of brought it up to a different level,” she said. “Part of being a great coach is being a great listener. Part of being a great writer and reporter is being a good listener. There’s a lot of similarities to them. … I felt drawn to do the work.”

Isler said she doesn’t always use horses in her work. She said she talks a lot with her clients but never tells them what to do. Instead, she said, she asks the “right questions” and helps shine a spotlight on something that is really affecting someone’s life.

She helps people to learn what behaviors they are doing and why they are doing them, she said — often there are a few core issues someone is struggling with, and once they are aware of these problems, they can fix them.

As an example, Isler said she has had clients with communication problems who may think they are being clear when in reality they are not getting their point across.

“There are so many people in emotional pain and turmoil right now in this world, and it’s almost mind-boggling,” Isler said. “One compassionate witness can change that experience.”

Emily Chappell is a Penn State journalism student.

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