“Softness” is about having the sensitivity we need in order to feel when and if the horse tries to “give.” It is about developing the kind of awareness and feel it takes to know when we are working against our horses, rather than with them.
In his book JOURNEY TO SOFTNESS, renowned horseman and storyteller Mark Rashid shares methods and techniques he has gleaned from decades of work with horses, horse people, and martial artists. In addition, he asked friends, all with different backgrounds, from different walks of life, and from different parts of the country, if they would be willing to contribute thoughts on how the practice of softness has helped them in their respective occupations, as well as with their horsemanship. In this piece by Lee Cranney, an airplane and helicopter pilot of 47 years, we discover how—surprisingly!—horses are like helicopters:
I fly the Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. We fight wildland fires; rescue lost hikers, climbers, and the occasional horse; and fly patients from accident scenes to hospitals.
Even after almost five decades, I continue to enjoy every minute of it. As we fortunate few who get to do what we love are fond of saying, “It sure beats working for a living.”
I have been hanging out with horses for less than a quarter of the time I’ve been flying, and most of that has been with my buddy, Dude, but I have loved every single second of it. If you had suggested to me ten years ago that I would fall in love with a horse, let alone horses plural, I likely would have said you were nuts. When Dude was offered to me free of charge as a two-year-old, I was told that he had “issues.” My first question was, “What’s an issue?” Today, I would take a bullet for him, and I think he knows it.
A lot of what I have spent my life learning does actually apply in many ways to getting along with horses. I would like to share some of that with you.
In my opinion, really good helicopter pilots spend their flying time secure in the knowledge that they can handle whatever is about to go wrong. I believe the same can be said of really good horsemen (not that I am or likely ever will be one). Constantly feeling the whole horse, constantly aware of what holds his attention, intention, and thoughts, his movements, feet, weight, and balance, secure in the knowledge they can handle whatever is about to go wrong.
The similarities between flying helicopters and working with horses are both more basic and much more complex. Helicopters, like all aircraft, have a design gross operating weight that depends on several flight weather conditions, including altitude, temperature, and wind.
From day one of flight school, helicopter pilots have instilled in them the concepts of control touch and pilot technique. These two concepts are, in practice, identical to softness and feel; if I move the cyclic control (the “joy stick” or simply the “stick”) a minutely small amount, the commensurate effect on the main rotor is significantly more. This gives the helicopter amazing maneuverability and versatility but makes it extremely touchy (“squirrelly,” if you will). Experienced pilots will typically rest their right hands on their right thighs and make small, almost imperceptible inputs to the cyclic to achieve desired changes (sounds somewhat like horsemanship, don’t you think?). And, just to make it a little more interesting, any input in any one of the five controls requires a compensating corrective or offsetting control input in all of the others: “Rub your belly, pat your head.”
To illustrate: an average pilot can take off from a hover with the aircraft at the design gross weight for that altitude, temperature, and wind condition. If he ham-fists or over-controls during the maneuver, the aircraft will actually settle back to the ground rather than take off. Normally (and if the pilot in command has ensured that the aircraft is loaded for the conditions), there is a built-in “fudge factor” of power available to compensate and still allow an average pilot to make the takeoff. A pilot who cultivates control touch (softness) and pilot technique (feel) can, in fact, get the same aircraft off the ground smoothly and with less power. Inevitably, in the life of a working helicopter pilot, there will come a time when he needs that control touch and pilot technique to save the aircraft and all on board. Consequently, softness and feel are drummed into us as the way to get the most from our machines in the worst conditions.
Imagine my astonishment when much, much later, I began to experience, on a horse, the effortless beauty of asking for a soft feel, or change of gait, or turn with no touch at all; simply thought, connection, and breath and then we do it. Together. As one. Doesn’t happen all the time, of course, but when it does, it is truly amazing. And almost enough to make a grown man bawl. So, softness and feel equate to pilot technique and control touch. Okay. Makes some sense.
Then there’s this: One day when I was on Dude at a Mark Rashid clinic, he said that I should “ride the whole horse.” I got the concept immediately. We learn to use all five senses to fly an aircraft. (If you wonder about using taste and smell to fly, I’d be happy to explain it to you, but it gets a little overlong.) I was able to translate that awareness of the whole aircraft to a slowly blossoming awareness of the whole horse. Each foot, which way his thoughts, energy, and weight are inclined to go next. To the degree that I can stay aware of it all, I am able to stay ahead of the horse/aircraft. Pilots whose attention stays inside the cockpit tend to be unaware of situations developing around them—weather, other aircraft, fire patterns, and so forth—which sometimes results in disaster. We refer to this as situational awareness (being aware of all around us, both near and far), and it is certainly applicable to horsemanship.
One last thought: Federal aviation regulations require pilots to perform a thorough preflight inspection. This is a fine habit we all strive to cultivate and, it seems to me, a good one for horsemen and -women as well.
JOURNEY TO SOFTNESS by Mark Rashid is available to order from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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