Flights of fancy

On a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, I encountered a reminder of what we can learn from working with horses.
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My 16-year-old son, Simon, and I took a trip recently to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Flight has fascinated Simon since he was young, but somehow we’d never been to the Outer Banks to see the monument to the Wright Brothers and the dunes where they conducted their aviation experiments. I thought the only horses I would see on the trip would be the feral herd that roams the nearby Corolla area.

I went full-bore for this trip. I packed the kite, read up on which dunes to visit, found a hotel close to the monument and cued up the audio version of David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers. Simon was most intrigued by accounts of how the brothers tinkered with levers and deliberated about motors, but for me the highlight of the story was a speech Wilbur Wright gave in 1901:

“Now, there are two ways of learning to ride a fractious horse,” Wright said to the Western Society of Engineers. “One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and, at leisure, figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

I admit that I can pretty much turn anything back to the topic of horses, but here was Wilbur Wright doing it for me. I’m not the first person struck by Wright’s reference to horses---the book How to Fly a Horse alludes to the same speech---but the idea captivated me. This one paragraph seemed to sum up the Wright brothers’ extraordinary contribution to American history: innovation, inspiration and physical courage. Of course, horses were part of it. And the questions Wright posed made sense: Is it better to watch or to ride? Observe from the fence or carry on through whatever problems arise?

Back at the hotel, I searched online for a picture of Wilbur Wright actually riding a horse. Nothing in the book suggested that the Wrights loved to ride, but the speech made me wonder about a personal connection.

I couldn’t find any evidence of that, unfortunately, but the Wrights lived at a time when horses were part of everyday life in America. You wouldn’t have to be particularly equestrian-minded to understand how horses were trained, how people made them into partners for work and play. Of course, horses in harness towed the Wright brothers’ planes; when Wilbur was in France, he performed test flights at a racetrack.

More than 100 years later, Wilbur Wright’s speech makes a lot of sense to me. From time to time, we’ve all played both roles: We’ve sat on the fence watching, and we’ve ridden through bucks, swerves or hops ourselves while someone else, perched on the fence, observed and analyzed the situation. Maybe it’s best to combine both approaches Wright described. Watch the fractious horse, then ride him.

That speech also suggests that even the most mechanistic among us may appreciate how much we can learn from animals and how much we owe them. The aerodynamics of bird wings and flight inspired the Wrights’ engineering. And, today, horses continue to teach us that we, too, can fly.

This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #379)