A New Variety of Small

This will be a wonderful experience of small, I thought last Saturday, when I learned about the initial exercise in the communications workshop I had joined: each of us eight participants was to spend a few minutes alone with a pinto named Reno in his corral.

The facilitators gave us no instructions, other than to enter the arena with an intention—whatever that might be. The rest of us were to remain outside and observe quietly, trying to remain aware of our own reactions to what we were witnessing.

I anticipated that by observing, I would become more and more attuned to Reno’s behavior as the exercise progressed. If I were going to learn to read his reactions to the individuals in our workshop, I’d have to pay particular attention to his most subtle movements—a flare of his nostrils, a flick of his tail, a quiver of his flanks.

So, as the first person entered the corral, I sat up straight in my seat and trained my eyes on Reno. He was at the far end of the corral, by the fence, fraternizing with a group of miniature horses and donkeys. The first person entered slowly, walking along the outside fence for a moment, then moving to the middle of the corral, and stopping. Reno turned to look at her. Now the participant moved closer to Reno, then again stopped. Reno again turned his head to acknowledge her. This time, she moved halfway toward Reno, then stopped. After turning toward her once again, Reno approached, and the two of them spent a few minutes interacting, the workshop participant patting and scratching Reno, while Reno turned his head toward her and away.

When the second participant entered, I expected the general interaction to be similar, and geared myself up for closer scrutiny. But to my surprise, Reno responded very differently this time. Instead of waiting for the participant to approach him, Reno walked up to the participant. Then, after a brief interaction, Reno led the way to the barn end of the coral, near the water, this participant at his side.

By the third interaction between a workshop participant and Reno, I was amazed. Each relationship between horse and human was different. Sometimes Reno led the way; other times he waited for the human to lead. Sometimes Reno was frisky, nuzzling into the human’s body, other times he was standoffish. With one participant, he was pushy.

I went fifth, and entered the arena with the intention of collaborating with Reno. I would approach him partway, in hopes that he would move toward me was well. When I stopped at the halfway point, Reno turned to look at me. I walked half the distance toward him. Once again, he raised his head to look, but didn’t move. “Come to me, ,Reno,” I cajoled. “Come to me.” But Reno didn’t budge.

I walked a bit closer, stopped, smiled, and again invited Reno to approach. Again, he didn’t budge. I must have spent five minutes in the corral, inviting Reno to come toward me, opening my arms as if to embrace him, nodding my head, softening my voice, straightening my body, relaxing my body. But while he paid attention to me, Reno did not take one step in my direction.

After each interaction, the facilitators interpreted Reno’s response. Instead of telling me that Reno had refused to approach me—as I had expected they would—both facilitators told me that Reno had respected the strong boundaries I communicated to him. It wasn’t that he ignored me, or didn’t like me. Instead, he had found me not all that approachable.

Perhaps. I’ll have to spend more time reflecting on this. But once all eight participants had completed the exercise, what most struck me was not Reno’s refusal to approach me, but his responding in a completely different way to each of us. Though he displayed some similar behavior from interaction to interaction, no two encounters were alike, each one, instead, tailored to the person with whom Reno was interacting.

Observing one horse interacting with humans for an hour is certainly an exercise in small. But instead of noticing smaller and smaller units of behavior, by watching this one horse for an extended period of time, I learned a large truth: horses are amazing creatures, capable of reading deeply into the energy a human offers them. From there, I quickly moved even larger, understanding once again, that by seeing small, I was learning just how miraculous this universe we live in is!

On a Door

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