On a visit to the Wright Broth­ers Na­tional Memo­rial, I en­coun­tered a re­minder of what we can learn from work­ing with horses.

EQUUS - - Equus - By El­iza McGraw

Flights of fancy

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.

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