Learning to Read People Like a Horse

​There were three participants, a horse, a rider and someone on the ground controlling the horse. The rider sat on the horse bareback, while the person standing instructed the horse to trot in an extended circle. The horse was on a lunge line, a long rope approximately thirty feet long. The person on the ground controlled the horse, allowing the rider to not worry about steering or pace. Once the horse was trotting in a steady gait the rider told two stories, one true and one false. Only the rider knew which one was true, that is until they were told out loud.

As the rider told the true story the horse maintained a smooth, consistent gait, keeping to the large circle. But as the rider told the false story, the horse’s gait and tracking changed dramatically. Sometimes the horse dipped in making the circle smaller, or it would break its gait by slowing down or speeding up. Its forward motion went from consistent to erratic, as it appeared to react to the false story. This phenomenon happened repeatedly with several different riders. It seemed the horse had an innate perception for falsehood.

Without a sophisticated means to measure exactly what the horse was reacting to, I surmise it detected a difference in the rider’s mannerisms, tone of voice or subtle body functions, similar to a polygraph machine, which measures hyper arousal indicators: blood pressure and heart rate, skin conductivity and respiration. Perhaps the horse could sense the rider’s heart rate and blood pressure fluctuating.

Humans perceive when things are out of alignment, but many of us override our innate detection systems. We suppress our perceptions. Or like the horse, we perceive when someone is lying but we don’t know what to do about it. Acknowledging the lie may disturb our sense of loyalty or dependence. We may deny the lie in order to minimize a perceived threat. If we are aware of it we might experience a fleeting internal question, an unpredictable emotional reaction or a seemingly unrelated distraction. We feel the heat of anger on our cheeks and look at the clock on the wall. Our forward flow is interrupted, like the horse.

Someone lying throws several relational things into question. While this may happen in a split second, it happens. We question the person, why are they lying? Is it personal? Are they even aware they’re lying? We might ask ourselves, “What must they think of me to lie to me?” Or “How close should I be to that person?” We wonder about their relationship to themselves and their mental stability, and in more serious situations their ability to discern fantasy from reality. Quickly, a lie puts us outside the conversation, a few feet away from the drinks at the shared table.

Instinctively and intuitively, once someone lies to us we know they are internally fragile. Their emotional and mental foundation is weak. In assessing their weakness, we wonder if we need to protect ourselves. Our conscious mind may not register this process, but our unconscious mind, more comfortable with complexity, is quickly investigating. Our autonomic functions react. We become vigilant. In this state, we don’t breath as deeply because we cannot fully relax. We must discern the best response: confront or subdue our perception because they are fragile. In the midst of falsehood, like the horse, our attention splits to focusing on the task at hand and watching the person lying. Forward flow is interrupted by the need to assess the unpredictable person. We tune into the subtleties.

Lies create a wavering, inconsistent gait. Momentum is affected as we try to figure out if the person just lied and why they are doing that. Dishonesty creates distance, from ourselves and from others. It interrupts the grace and ease with which we move through life. Like the horse, we are distracted and uncomfortable.


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