• vslachman

Body Language


I was recently listening to jazz musician Esperanza Spalding talk about when she first started playing an instrument. She was five, she said, and had heard Yo Yo Ma play and just knew she wanted to make sounds, too.


How many of us ever know who we truly are, let alone at age five? Not many, I’m betting.


The down side is that a lot of time gets spent muddling around trying to live up to some external expectation of who we “should” be. Which makes an odd sort of sense—we can’t live an authentic life if we don’t know who we authentically are.


And that’s where--at least for me--horses come in.

They'll be our partners but only if we're honest with them.


That’s why they’re such incredible facilitators in psychotherapy and moving folks forward in equine-assisted learning workshops; horses give immediate feedback when someone is, in essence, lying to them.


Cupcake at the horse rescue, not liking Dorian's body language at all!

Here's a case in point. Some time ago, for a period of several weeks, I was feeling awful about my situation and didn't know what to do. I knew I had to do something, but what that was eluded me. The pressure kept building and I kept getting more and more anxious and down on myself.


In short, I was pretty miserable.

But I didn't want to show that to Dorian! I think all of us who love our horses want to be the best person we can be for them. So when I went to the barn, I tried to put on a "happy face."

"Information is stored and shared throughout the body, not just in our “brain.” Dr. Candace Pert

That didn't work out so well. When I tried to retrieve him from the pasture, he'd walk away from me. If I came up next to him, he'd ignore me. If I asked him to do some work in the round pen, he'd just gaze off into the hay field . . . in short, he wanted pretty much nothing to do with me.


Pretty clear message! :)

Now, of course, I realize it was because I thought I was conveying that everything was great with me, but inside, that's not at all what I was feeling. And Dorian knew it. He was sending me a clear message to get real or he'd just do his own thing.


I finally did own up to how I was feeling, which is, obviously, the only way to make any real progress. Only when I admitted to myself how I was feeling and why did the path forward open up to me, and I took it.


Dorian sensed that immediately and was suddenly a great partner, happy to go to the round pen, the arena, get a massage . . . licking and chewing when I plopped on the saddle, eager to ride out.


Heading out!

The turnaround in him was immediate--as it is with all horses. They live in the moment and if you're authentic, they're right there with you. If not, "See ya later."


So what was I conveying to Dorian when he ignored me? Aside from how well he knows me, and aside from whether or not--as some people think--horses are telepathic, I was telling him what was really going on by my "body language."


Research has shown that we communicate, primarily, with our bodies. Though the percentage varies, most agree that only about 5-7% of what we actually communicate is verbal; the majority of our communication is non-verbal.


And, as I saw with Dorian, horses are the experts at reading body language. It's a major way they communicate with us and how we communicate with them.

We are our bodies, quite literally.

So how important is “congruent” communication? The Australian department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations funded a project whose findings are, in part, as follows:


“• The sender’s perception of the message can be different from that of the receiver."

[What we think we're saying is often not what we're saying at all].


• The self-esteem of both the sender and receiver can affect the perception of what is said and how it is said. [how you really feel about yourself gets communicated, for example, to your horse]


• Facial expression contribute 55% of the message.


How potent is communication that has nothing to do with what we say. Our facial expressions contribute over half of the message!


Add to that, the findings of a study in England that proved horses can read facial expressions far better than we imagine, and it's obvious . . . we really can't put anything over on horses, no matter how good are our intentions.


Other studies have found our posture, level of body tension, and additional cues sent by our bodies convey the “real” message we send. So incongruent communication may be more the rule rather than the exception.


Pretty congruent body language--ti's time to chill!

Here’s a bit more about how we house our experience in our bodies. I know a war veteran who had severe PTSD. As we talked, she let me know how frustrated she was that, for years, the VA had given her drugs to combat her unseen war trauma. Yet, the only way she got better was to stop taking the drugs, to notice how her body responded as she tried to process the symptoms of PTSD.


She looked at me over coffee one day and said “The trauma is here, in my body.” Drugs took her away from being present in her body; there was no way she could process or heal without literally getting back into herself. There are, as well, whole institutes devoted to helping us get in touch with who we are and what we’re actually about through our bodies (see the Strozzi Institute for embodied leadership, or Embright, for example).

We rarely, if ever, give ourselves time to simply be—to exist, to experience ourselves or others or the world around us—and many of us have lost the capacity even to know we’ve lost something.

Dr. Candace Pert, former research professor at Georgetown University prior to her death, was instrumental in the field of psychoneuroimmunology and one of the early pioneers in the discovery of endorphins. Later work in the area of peptides showed that information is stored and shared throughout the body, not just in our “brain.”


In The Molecules of Emotions, Pert explores “how the molecules of our emotions share intimate connection with, and are indeed inseparable from, our physiology” (18).


Our “brain,” in other words, is located throughout our bodies. This is why non-verbal communication is so potent and so obvious to others, even when out of our awareness.

And that's why when we're riding, we communicate directly to our horses through our "body" --it's called proprioception and you can read more about that here.


Yoga, meditation, and “mindfulness,” are all rooted in this same understanding of how profoundly we, most authentically, are our bodies.


Horses clearly communicate to each other.

Amanda Blake, a Master Somatic coach and author of Your Body is Your Brain, cites Pert and others’ studies on neurotransmitters and neuropeptides’ activity throughout the body. Noting Diane Gershon’s 1999 work on the enteric nervous system, she reports that there are more neurons in the gut than in the spinal cord. In fact, our bodies are an intricate system of communication and emotional interchange that affects our mental and physical well being.


We don’t think, experience, communicate, or feel solely through a lump of matter contained in the skull. We are our bodies, quite literally.


Looking through “the eyes of a horse” showed me that we can be more present in our bodies, in the "here and now." There is no separation between our “self” and the “world” out there; rather there’s a oneness, a “moving with” and “being in” the world around us. But our mode of being is primarily one of separation, something “forest bathing” and Giles Hutchins (who I’ve spoken of in another post), among others are trying to remedy.


Taking a rest for a moment and simply being.

We rarely, if ever, give ourselves time to simply be—to exist, to experience ourselves or others or the world around us—and many of us have lost the capacity even to know we’ve lost something.


I think that "something" is valuable and essential. Not just to our general well being, but to our emotional, psychological, and physical health. We’re not designed to exist in the limited scope of what was formerly accepted as the “brain”—we’re designed as whole, integrated, present beings.


This is what horses know so well. This is how horses naturally exist in the world.


And how they can help us reclaim ourselves.

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