Last August I traveled to Hudson, WI, to observe and participate in Wisdom Horse, a program that uses guided interaction with horses to teach corporate employees, most often senior executives, about their work style. My morning was spent watching Talon Performance Group get put through their learning paces by Wisdom Horse founders and directors Ann Romberg and Lynn Baskfield, and my afternoon was spent being guided toward personal and work life epiphanies myself by Romberg, Baskfield, and my new equine friends. As you’ll see from the story that follows, I learned how to better defend my corporate pasture, and how to get cocktail guests (even ones without hooves) to pay attention to me.
Powers of Observation
I have to admit human cocktail parties—those events where people stand around (exclusively and horribly) in cliques holding drinks, are never anything I look forward to. You might say I'm not at ease enough with people to unthinkingly, breezily slide into one of these cliques. Similarly, I sometimes feel that if I could make deeper connections with those I interview for stories, and even my own colleagues and friends, I would be more effective in my job. So when Baskfield and Romberg strolled with me out to the pasture for my private Wisdom Horse session, and asked me what issues I wanted to address, those were the two that came to mind. They'd try to address those, but they warned me these sessions were known for going in unplanned directions.
I assumed it would be the same procedure as that morning—go out to the pasture, wait for a horse to come to me, and then take part in exercises in which I would try to get the horse to do this or that. I felt sure Cole, the horse I felt the greatest mutual affinity with—would bound excitedly my way, and I’d have him all to myself. Instead, Romberg and Baskfield told me I’d be staying right there, in the thick of the herd, trying to interact just as I would at a cocktail party, though this time without the benefit of intoxicated companions. Fortunately, like one of those gatherings where you think you don't know anyone or that no one will remember you, a "host," my Cole, immediately greeted me. As I pet his nose, Romberg and Baskfield asked me what I felt. "I feel comfortable, and the horses seem secure in their space," I answered. My facilitators were supportive, but not content with that response. It didn't pierce beyond interpretation, or concepts. You can get pretty isolated from the primal feelings of nature living in Manhattan, but I caught on soon enough, as I described to Romberg and Baskfield the feeling of the wind on my face, the clothes on my body, and the warmth of the horse under my fingers. I wasn't all the way there yet, though. When I tried to describe a sound in the distance, I resorted to my old habits, immediately categorizing it as a highway, rather than describing how it sounded to me. With encouragement, I noted its "dynamic swishing" sound.
More than good practice for becoming a very zen prairie woman, I began gaining the kind of descriptive ability and powers of observation that I think might (eventually) make me a better reporter and all-around worker. I would notice more, and in greater detail. After getting past the reflex to describe what I sensed around me by automatically categorizing it, I put that new skill to use when Romberg and Baskfield asked me to describe the color of Cole's hair. The old me would have just left it at "black," but with some gentle prodding from my facilitators, I pointed out all the colors that actually comprise what I would call "black," such as flecks of gray, dark brown, and even subtly reflected tones of green, blue, and red.
The powers of observation, description, and alertness to my surroundings exercise was guided into another exercise, thanks to Cole, who began nudging my legs. Romberg and Baskfield noticed my reflex of taking a step back, rather than pushing him in another direction. "How much space are you comfortable with?" they asked me, probably remembering my request to learn how to break down the barriers between others and myself. In response, I pointed to as far as I could point, hopefully indicating about half a football field. They directed me then to "ask Cole to leave my space." Now, if they had asked me to ask a person with a penchant for calling me before noon on the weekend to leave my space, I would have been happy to learn that lesson, but with Cole, it wasn't so easy.
Unlike a morning caller on the weekend, I had no problem with Cole taking up "my space." So I gave it a half-hearted try, pushing, but not hard enough to get him to move in another direction. Romberg and Baskfield continued prodding me to assert my right to my space. "Look, he's taking your space," they said. "Are you just going to let him do that?" I thought about it for a split-second, and wanting mainly to just stand there for a while petting his mane, I exclaimed, "Oh, I don't mind that."
But Cole, the reliable co-teacher with Romberg and Baskfield that he is, was intent that I learn a lesson about asserting myself to push a situation in another direction when the need warranted. So, since I drove Cole to it, he bent his nose to the top of my sneakers as if he were about to start nibbling my toes. "Do you mind that?" my facilitators asked. Forced to admit I'd rather not suffer a toe bite from a horse, I began leaning against him more strongly to get him to go the other way. And, as Romberg and Baskfield kept pointing out to me, I kept taking steps back. I knew had a passive-aggressive streak, but this was getting embarrassing! I'm not a corporate tycoon, mind you, but I know how to put my ideas forward and push back when an interview source or other business partner tries to take advantage.
Or do I? Beginning to wonder about myself, my resolve tightened, and with a guiding hand on Cole's neck, I walked with him to another patch of grass. At first I didn’t think I would get credit for this maneuver since it required not only Cole, but me along with him, leaving the contested space. But Romberg and Baskfield said it counted as long as I then returned to the space I wanted. They asked me to recount what I did. "I escorted him out," I said.
"Do you think there are times when people in your life [or business] need to be escorted out?" Romberg asked. So, I surmised, "I need to learn to be proactive rather than just reacting passively to other people's (or horse's) actions." My epiphany was confirmed when the white male horse, Gyp, apparently witnessing all this, powerfully urinated. "So they really do that!" I exclaimed remembering being told about this earlier. Gyp was exhibiting a physical release just as I experienced an emotional release. Cole, meanwhile, trotted off before I could thank him for his services, another typical phenomenon according to my facilitators. "...And my work here is done," he seemed to be saying. It looks like horses are better than humans at knowing when they've fulfilled their mission and it’s time to move onto the next task.
Since Gyp was so attuned to my efforts, I practiced my new skills with him, though not before almost sliding backward. The trouble was he wanted to eat the grass in "my space." Well, a horse has to eat, I thought to myself and explained to Romberg and Baskfield. "But he has the whole pasture," Romberg pointed out. Deciding as I might if Gyp were a business competitor or partner overstepping his bounds when there are many other parts of the pasture—or market—to take up, I gave him a good push, and the grass was mine.
Hello, My Name Is...
Next up was a direct horse parallel to my human cocktail party discomfort. In another part of the pasture—with horses I hadn't made friends with yet—I had to try out my networking skills by getting them to acknowledge me. Romberg and Baskfield instructed me to line myself up several paces directly in front of the horse's nose, and with arm and hand outstretched, walk forward. I tried this first with Dove, a brown, black, and white mare. She said "hello" by lifting her head and looking at me, but when I approached to pet her and interact further, she went back to exploring the grass, uninterested in participating in our exercise. Thankfully, I was bailed out by Cole, who didn't seem to mind visiting with me a little more, even if his official duties were complete. I walked toward him with outstretched hand, and he greeted and interacted with me enough for me to pet his neck and practice my lesson again about defending my space.
This whole lesson about taking a proactive approach rather than just reacting to others was instructive for me. I usually just go with the flow by learning to successfully swim in it rather than pushing the current in a direction that makes more sense for my company or me. My typical logic in winning is outlasting adverse situations, rather than stopping them before they get out of hand, or trying to transform them. Cole is a great coach—much better than any I've heard about in New York City, and much more succinct. With sadness, I said "goodbye" to my hoofed workplace coach. He snorted a little in response.
Back to "Mane Event"
Photos by Nancy Peregrine