the common body

IMG_3224Sarah Hollis, DeAnna Pellecchia, Ingrid Schatz and Pony, in Pony Dances.  Photo:  Jeffrey Anderson

The second half of the title of my book, Our Horses, Ourselves,  is “Discovering the Common Body”. With that phrase, I want to emphasize that your body is not separate from my body or from the body of the horse, the praying mantis, the hummingbird, the manatee or the earth itself. We are not separate.

The false idea of our separateness is both harmful and in fact painful – teaching us to experience ourselves as essentially disconnected from other beings, other species, and the earth itself.

Every moment, we are sharing air, sharing breath. Our bodies are shedding and absorbing the water that makes up 60-70% of our bodies. At the same time that our “individual” biospheres are interacting and changing each other, we are sharing the biosphere of the earth.  In measurable ways, we are continually becoming more and more part of each other.

My colleague Andrea Olsen puts it this way:

“Understanding that body is part of Earth is an essential component of human awareness. Our bones, and our breath, and our blood are the minerals and the air and the water around us, so that when you arrive someplace new, after a few days of drinking the water or eating the food from that place, you become that place. So the idea of separateness starts to fade and this larger model of interconnectedness becomes more primary in our awareness.”

So all living beings are an interconnected, interspecies, biosimilar, cross-pollinating network in a constant flux of adjustment, response, and transformation. Often though, we are not feeling that ongoing connectedness. Or we are feeling the (conscious and unconscious) downside of that inextricable oneness.  The pollution and cross-contamination of the toxicity of discourse and environmental action and inaction that surrounds us.

In my experience, the horses can help us with that. There is something so precious and profound about entering the mystery and the silence of connection with them that has little or nothing to do with technique or conventional horsemanship, and everything to do with the deep alignment of relationship and, in the words and practice of the late Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening.

In my book, I tell the story of Nelson, a Mustang stallion that I had the privilege of working with. He had been captured by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management  – the agency that controls the fates of the wild Mustang herds in the West) Nelson was severely traumatized by that experience.

 “When I first met Nelson the Mustang, I felt how my body reflected the fractured landscape of fear and withdrawn indifference that he embodied; how
we mirrored each other’s uncertainties and nervousness. Over time that fearful terrain softened into new contours. After many months I noticed that the texture of my body changed when I was with him. I felt that I had been homogenized— as if my body was expressing a single harmonious tone, instead of a hundred nervous, little notes; as if my cells were aligned and humming together like the deep, resonance of a meditation bell. I could feel us echo-locating each other, skin-to-skin, cell-to-cell, bone-to-bone. Later on, when Nelson would seem nervous, instead of reacting, I would settle into my body and wait. Eventually he would join me there, in the shared landscape of breath and stillness.”

In these peculiarly fraught times, I believe that each of us has to find a way of comforting, reassuring, and supporting ourselves.  I just finished reading Philip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. La Belle Sauvage is the sleek little boat that carries the heroes, Malcolm and Alice, through the wild flooding rivers and seas to at least temporary safety.

As I read, I thought about the current wild flooding rivers and seas (political, actual and metaphoric) that are carrying us all to god knows where.  I thought about the urgency of finding a way of navigating whatever is here and whatever is coming.  A practice, a shelter from the storm.  For me, besides my practice as a dance artist, it is the horses.  I can soften and rest in the grave and sweet grounding of their presence, the matter-of-factness of them, and the way in which I am held in their witness, the reciprocity of their touch.

For more about that: Embodied Horsemanship




fires, humans, horses


Fires are raging in Southern California.  I cannot imagine the terror for humans and animals. I have been particularly moved by the stories of people trying to save horses, and images of horses being led out of fire zones.  Everyone is, I am sure, doing their best in the face of this disaster.

Here are a few tips for those who are rescuing horses, or caring for horses who have been evacuated.

  • To the best of your ability, stay calm.  Horses are prey animals, and they are reading your nervous system like the professional decoders of human emotion that they are.  When leading a horse, move as smoothly and calmly as possible.  Yanking on the lead line,  scolding the horse, or moving roughly only adds to the distress of the horse and ultimately makes your job more difficult.
  • If you are feeling agitated take a few minutes before approaching the horse to breathe and settle your own body. Feel your feet on the ground, the breath moving through your body.
  • Move slowly and mindfully around the horse.  If they have been evacuated in haste, or trailer loaded quickly and with any difficulty, they are on high alert for the next scary thing.  Use the slow, steady quality of your movements to reassure them that they are safe.
  • Once the horse is in a place of safety, and has water and feed, take a few minutes to stand and breathe quietly with the horse, speaking soothingly in a soft, friendly voice.  Let this shared breathing meditation help to quiet and settle your body and mind too.
  • If the horse is comfortable with being touched, softly rest your hands on the horse’s neck, or use some soft strokes (TTouch) down the mane of the horse, or slow strokes along the ears.  Use your touch to support the feeling of just being, rather than doing.
  • Feel the reciprocal quality of your touches.  Remember that as you touch, you are being touched, and are, in fact, soothing each other.

For more ways of making mindful connection with your horse, check out my book:  Our Horses, Ourselves: Discovering the Common Body from Trafalgar Square Books.





the witness

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I am on Martha’s Vineyard, entering the waters of moving presence with my autistic godson Jacob, and his parents. Today his mother JoAnn and I entered our work through the discipline of Authentic Movement. First Jacob and JoAnn are the movers, I am witness.  Then Jacob and I are movers as JoAnn witnesses.  The receptive embodied presence of the witness is the deep lake in which the movement is reflected and held.

Entering one’s own movement in the presence of Jacob is something like dancing with a horse.  Eyes need to be open, because he is unpredictable, riding the rough, twisting currents or his own movement.  But there are steep differences. Jacob is not choosing, he is being chosen by his movements.  There are moments of deliberate attention, but then those dissolve back into the mystery of his patterns. He is both porous and impenetrable. Sometimes we are dancing together, other times rapt in our individual experiencing. I have experienced this alone togetherness in a paddock with a horse.

In 2002, Janet Adler wrote:

As many of us know, autistic children have a tremendous capacity to concentrate. They can do one movement indefinitely. What is the force in these children that draws them, continues to sustain them, into repeating certain movements over and over?

Needing to find the children, to find myself in their presence, I chose to concentrate into the very stuff of each gesture by actually entering the precious detail of their bodies moving, trying to move exactly as they did. In doing so I had the privilege of learning their silent language. I found them in a merged state with their own movement- because of an absence of an inner witness
 fervently focused on their idiosyncratic movement patterns. These children taught me about movement patterns. Could their prayer have been: “See me, and then I can see myself?” And so, slowly, accompanied by an outer, moving, open-eyed witness, they began, just began, to see themselves. In such moments of grace, an inner witness was born, barely born- tiny beginnings, enormous moments in my life. It was here that an opportunity for a dialogic relationship between us emerged.

I have been entering the precious detail of Jacob’s movement for 16 years.  Today, in the cold winter sun, surrounded by the bare trees, the soft thin grass, the lengthening shadows, I am still a student, still moving, still listening, moving and waiting to be moved.

the poem, the dance

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This is how I want to make dances.  This is how I want to teach.  This is how I want to be.

Thank you Mary Oliver!




I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves.  I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash.  I want to write with quiet hands.  I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daises and everlasting and the
ordinary grass.  I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise.  I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable.  I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.

~ Mary Oliver ~