How aware are we when we pull on a persona? We’re usually aware when we tidy one up to make an impression at a job interview. We might notice that we’re different at church than at Walmart. It isn’t deception; it’s just a good idea to use a different persona when pulled over by the police for speeding, (Good evening, Officer) than you use with your dog (Who’s a good boy?) Most of us have personas that use entirely different vocabularies that are more repetitive and “colorful” that we only bring out on special occasions and apologize for later.
Persona is defined as the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. (Oxford dictionary.) It’s not lying exactly. I like to think of a persona as an affirmation of who I am on a good day. I’ve seen some amazing mom personas; women who’d like to scream, strike a match, and burn the whole thing to the ground, but instead smile at their toddler and ask in a calm voice, “Can I help you with that?”
Do you have a persona at the barn? I used to act more polite than normal to my vet, even when he came to treat other people’s horses. I was sucking up, hoping he’d like me and come fast for emergencies. My friend always complained to the vet about his charges and I was a little scared for her horses.
Some folks act tough, dramatically jerking their horses around like they learned to ride from western movies because they think they’re supposed to show all of us who’s boss, too. Others tickle and baby talk to their horse, so we know how bonded they are to their horses. Some of us strut around with bravado so no one will know we’re scared. Some of us have been acting scared for so long, it’s become a habit that doesn’t quite fit. Some of us are so sick of personas that we use the barn as a persona-free zone and let others deal with the consequences.
On top of the usual human insecurities, women usually learn to have tightrope personas. We need to be smart, but not too smart. Nice, but not too nice. Be friendly, but not that kind of friendly. Having been raised to be people-pleasers, some of us hide our feelings and smile until our gums ache. Some of us develop wicked senses of humor and red wine stains. Others mope around, keeping saintly quiet, and being unfailingly, unnaturally polite. We build a pink persona to hide our darker parts.
Do horses have personas? No. They don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. That’s frontal lobe behavior and human territory. Horses are considered a motor-sensory animal. They have a small prefrontal cortex, so they must react differently than humans by definition. Horses are involuntarily concerned with their survival and their environment is a potential predatory threat until they know they are safe. In other words, they are too busy staying alive to make up personas. Besides, the other horses wouldn’t be fooled.
But our horses watch us. They read our body language, our calming signals, and intelligently search us for our intent. Humans can be a mass of contradictions. We cuddle and cry into their manes and the next moment, correct them for being in our space. We ask them to go forward while we’re pulling back on the reins. We overthink things in our big fat frontal lobes instead of listening to them.
It’s commonly said that horses feel our fear, but I wonder if nebulous anxiety isn’t more like it. Humans are more complicated than plain old fear. Can they tell the difference between frustration from work and frustration with them? If they are very capable of understanding praise, what do they feel when we’re sad? Or impatient? Can they tell if we’re afraid of being late or afraid of something they don’t see?
Sometimes we give horses the persona of being our therapist, not that they have a choice. They might have compassion fatigue from carrying our troubles, not that they know what that means either. We love to think horses are supporting our emotions when they have emotions of their own to deal with. What if what we call compassion from them is actually confusion? Are we reading their calming signals truthfully?
And yet another contradiction: we buy horses for our own needs and wishes, but horses come with history and emotion and stoic secrets, and soon they start to unravel their secrets a bit. In a perfect world, it’s at the same point that we’re aging and starting to shed, one by one, our self-limiting, people-pleasing personas as they become boring and lose their elastic. When the personas fall down around our ankles, we can replace them with a deep belly laugh a bit like the nicker of an old lead mare. If we’re lucky, we get more interested in what horses have to say than what they can do for us.
For all the chatter about leadership, and partnership, and lah-de-dah, our horses need something better from us. Maybe it’s time that the ones who can make up personas get to work. Would it be possible to build a persona that would help our horses?
This new persona would need to be one of authenticity, defined as “talking, feeling, doing” all in alignment. We’d pretend to be better than we are, working to convince our horses that humans can become reliable. The best reason to pull on an ill-fitting persona is that a horse may need it from us. When we say horses make us better people, it isn’t something they do. It’s that we change for them. We design a persona that we want to grow into for a horse; a way to make our shoulders broader to benefit some half-lame old gelding. A way to hone our energy to balance a spitfire chestnut mare.
Partnership is a persona that we fall into not when we are succeeding, but when it dawns on us that life with horses is necessarily imperfect. That both sides will make mistakes and sometimes fail, but rather than making us adversaries, it can draw us closer. In a strange way, moments of failure make horses and humans more nakedly honest. We like who we are with horses and that self-awareness persona becomes real and stays at the forefront of our minds. It turns into confidence.
Then one day, you’re riding along, when you see a hang glider with rainbow ribbons flapping in from the south, just as a small herd of elderly Harley riders towing baby strollers pulls up behind you, and you can’t even remember the last time you checked your girth. Another rider might scream at the very top of her lungs, “Oh my gawd, we’re all gonna die!” but instead you relax your legs and slack the rein with a sweet bit of praise in your exhale, gifts for a horse who can trust you.
Next week: Human Calming Signals: Authenticity
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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