While driving back the other day after a particularly challenging horse jump lesson, I realized there are many similarities between horseback riding and flying. It reminded me that - as with any sport - I need to walk before I run. There is a progression of skill, and nothing but experience can advance me to the next level. And it reminded me that variety is a good thing. Riding the same horse all the time is like an experienced pilot flying the same airplane in the same conditions.
I was assigned a horse that likes speed. As soon as I got up in the saddle, he wanted to start walking. As much as I tried to hold back the reins, I had to shorten my stirrups while he was walking me around the arena. That was all fine and dandy, but he made me a little uncomfortable when we were instructed to trot over a set of cavalettis. As soon as we got closer, the horse would pick up the pace significantly, and he would trip over the cavalettis almost every time. A couple of times he picked up a canter as we were in the middle of the obstacle.
Then it came time to practice cantering over the cavalettis. Oh my god. I felt like I was shooting an approach in an F-16 with instruments I was completely unfamiliar with. The horse was literally taking me for a ride. I was struggling to keep a semblance of control, while some of the others in the class were riding with their arms straight out to the sides. It was a humbling experience and I was glad the arena was too wet for actual jumps. I’m sure the horse could feel my stress as I held the same white knuckled death grip on the reins that I applied to the yoke as a student pilot.
I’m accustomed to riding the type of horse that requires a fair amount of leg to move forward – one that I can trust won’t take off on me. I guess I’m accustomed to the Cessna 172 of horses. No surprises. Slow enough to allow me to stay ahead of the game. A trainer. The week prior, I had ridden such a horse and felt quite comfortable jumping a series of two jumps.
But although it’s more comfortable sticking with the same type of horse and the same type of airplane, I like progressing and learning. I ride a different horse every weekend, and I fly different airplanes as often as I can. While I certainly enjoy flying a plane or riding a horse I’m completely familiar and comfortable with, getting out of that comfort zone keeps me on my toes. It makes me feel alive.
The key is to keep the advancements or changes gradual. You don’t want to go from a riding school pony to a thoroughbred, or from a Cessna 152 to a Citation Ten. Of course, the FAA protects us from that kind of progression with regulations. But similarly, it’s not a good idea to go out and fly on a day when the winds are blowing at 30 knots, 90 degrees from the runway heading unless you have some experience with crosswinds. That would be like going from riding cavalettis to jumping a six-foot fence. But it's a good thing to bend the comfort zone a little, as long as you stay within safe limits.
And if the conditions or equipment are beyond your ability, whether it’s with iron horses or their flesh-and-blood counterparts, don’t concede - seek help. If you’re weak on crosswinds, instrument approaches, unusual attitudes or whatever it is, I encourage you to leave your fear and your ego at home and go out with an instructor to get that hands on experience. You’ll be glad you did when you get into a situation you’re generally not exposed to. And it will keep you off the ground when conditions are challenging.
I was happy to have my instructor yelling at me to keep my heels down, pull the reins back and sit down in the saddle. The week prior, she had given me nothing but praise. She clearly had put me on this horse to get me out of my comfort zone. Knowing that I wasn’t fully in control of my horse, she was also smart enough to make me canter the cavalettis solo while the others in the class watched. Having spectators may have elevated my stress level a smidge, but at least I didn’t run anyone over. And while the experience was intimidating, I learned a lot from the lesson. And I most definitely felt alive.