When working with people and their horses, it is sometimes useful to draw on analogy to help explain concepts. In the thousands of hours I have logged flying everything from bush-planes to 737s, I have realized many parallels between riding a horse and flying an airplane. Have you ever flown or taken the controls of an airplane? Even if you haven’t you’ll appreciate the comparison.
Let’s Get this Bird in the Air
Before we fly a plane, we do a walk-around. Take a look out the terminal window before you get on that big jet and head off to your snow-free winter destination; you’ll see one of the pilots performing an inspection of the plane. In aviation, it is a legal requirement. When riding a horse, it is good common sense. We inspect our horses before we ride, pick their feet and brush them down.
When we are tacked up and ready to ride, we climb into the saddle (cockpit), and walk (taxi) to the arena or trail head (runway). And then we are airborne!
When you’re riding a horse, just like flying an airplane, you’re moving in three dimensions. While you ride, try to visualize how you and your horse are moving with respect to the environment around you, what we commonly refer to as the big picture. Three concepts that will help you are: Axis of Rotation, Feedback and Situational Awareness.
Axis of Rotation
An airplane moves about 3 axis: vertical, lateral and longitudinal. We also have terms for movement about each of those axis, respectively: yaw, pitch and roll. We all know horses can pitch you off and love to roll in the dirtiest spot they can find, but that’s not quite what we are talking about here.
When we are flying straight and level, all three axis are in balance. If we push the nose of the airplane down, we are rotating about the lateral axis. If we tip the wings, we are rotating about the longitudinal axis.
While we’re not actually flying a horse – although that would be fun – the same concepts apply. Picture yourself riding a perfect circle. If the axis are in balance, your horse will follow a nice arc. If he is dropping a shoulder and falling into the circle, his lateral axis is out of balance.
You can control the horses movement about each of those axis, independently or together. Instead of a stick and rudder, you have your seat, hands and legs.
Like flying a plane, his balance is entirely dependent on you. The next time you are riding, try to envision how your horse is moving about the axis, and also note how your balance affects his.
Feedback is the information we get back about an action we have taken.
When we are flying a plane, we move the controls: pushing, pulling, or turning the yoke, moving the rudder pedals. The instruments and our senses will then tell us how the plane changed its movement relative to the three axis, based on our actions.
Riding your horse, you take the feel of a rein. Your senses tell you what the horses response was, and you in turn make adjustments based on how the horse responded. The process repeats over and over. We call this a feedback loop.
Both humans and horses learn from feedback. Our minds make mental connections; we remember patterns and develop expectations based on responses. And the more we process and act on feedback, the more this loop becomes subconscious. You likely make minute corrections every second or two when you’re riding, without even knowing it.
And like horses, not every type of airplane is the same. Once we’re comfortable flying that Cessna 172, lets take a Boeing 737 for a flight. Should we expect that the experience will be the same?
The Boeing has the same basic controls as the Cessna, but responds in a much different manner. You’ll be a student all over again, as your mind is forming new patterns as you cycle through the feedback loop. The key point is that the greater variety of aircraft you fly, the easier this process becomes. This is because you are training your mind not simply how to fly a Cessna or Boeing, but how to fly a airplane.
Likewise, the more horses you ride, the more you will learn to ride a horse. Your actions will be quicker and more appropriate, because you have amassed a large library of sensory memories that you’ll subconsciously draw on as you feel your way around any new mount.
We call this experience.
The textbook definition of situational awareness is fairly long and complex. In a nutshell it means knowing whats going on around you, and how your actions and those of others can affect the big picture. In aviation this is crucial. Your awareness of the position and paths of other aircraft relative to yours, both at the moment and in the future, is a huge component of safety.
Consider riding in a busy arena. You can focus intently on what your hands are doing, and probably cause a rodeo. Or you can look up, take in the big picture, and guide your horse along a path that will avoid conflict with others.
Gincy Self Bucklin, in her book How Your Horse Wants You to Ride introduces this concept as soft eyes. Soft eyes requires using your mental awareness and peripheral vision to take in your entire environment. Feel how your horse is responding and moving within the environment, as opposed to focusing on a single element of it. Hard eyes – focusing on a single thing – will cause you to lose that connected feel to your horse and become unbalanced.
Back on the Ground
At the end of our flight we taxi to the terminal at idle to allow the engine to cool (walk to the tie rail). Our passengers disembark (we dismount) and thank the flight crew for a great trip. We tidy up and take our gear out of the plane (unsaddle and untack).
Of course, after that a crew comes to drain the holding tanks
Accepting that your horse can move in three dimensions, and being conscious of how you’re re moving within your whole environment will allow you to become more balanced. A relaxed seat and hands will allow you sense the feedback from your horse and in return, be soft and giving.