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Horsesailing Through The Hill Country

I was driving back home going West on 290 after a visit with our son & daughter in Austin as I began one of my favorite Texas driving fantasies. With the win­dow open and the warm Texas air in my face, and with my dear Lisle beside me absorbed in her music, I begin to imagine the countryside I am now passing through at an easy 70 MPH from the point of view of someone travelling by horseback a hundred years ago.

This particular evening something was different about the light, and the valleys and hills between Dripping Springs and Johnson City took on a special appeal. In my fantasy I was riding my horse in the 1890s, tired from the journey out of Austin, wishing that on such an evening my horse had wings. I was dreaming of flying like a bird through the sky, leaping from hilltop to hilltop, taking the countryside in half mile swoops and getting home before bedtime instead of the three day trip it would have been at the time.

Then I began to play one of my other favorite driving mind games, playing “what if”. Too bad, I mused, that the days of horse­back travel that settled this country didn’t coincide with today’s parasailing technology. Because if they had, surely some inventive soul would have come up with the idea of hooking up a horse to a sailing wing.

I amused myself with the idea for a while. It was a pretty good one, and got me all the way through Stonewall. Ever since Dripping Springs Lisle had been off in her own thoughts, barely tolerat­ing my out­bursts of hilarity as I imagined horses in the sky, sailing between the ridges. It got to where my driving was jeopardized by my hooting at the ideas that came to me. My attention to the road wandered. Lisle was not amused.

I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was that great bud we had shared with our son earlier in the afternoon, long before we hit the road but still there, at the edges. I imagined horsesailers bouncing off the low hills, bound­ing across Inter­states and leaping across rivers and tall forests of trees. I could feel their freedom as they leapt from earth to cloud in one swoop. I could almost hear the “Yahoos” echoing across the Hill Country, and imagined the occasional horse turd plummeting from the sky.

A quick pee stop at the LBJ roadside park West of Johnson City, and then off on the last leg to Mermaid Springs. But now, with dark approaching and home still 45 minutes away even at seventy miles an hour, I began to feel tired. Lord, I began to wish the drive was over. I began to think again from the point of view of a tired rider and a tired thirsty horse in the heat of a Texas evening. Sometimes those rides must have seemed like they were never going to end.

Ah, if only horses had wings! Well, I began to think again, why not? How big would a helium-filled gliding wing, shaped like a parasail, have to be? What would it actually take to lift 90% of the weight of the combined horse, rider and rig into the air? Practically weightless, how easy would it be for horse and rider to get up some speed and then leap off from the top of a ridge and sail for miles, then touch down for a moment, build up some speed, and once again leap into the air? All the way into town I contem­plated my fantasy as evening turned into night.

The next day, a quick look at Google told me that Helium can gross-lift about one kilogram per cubic meter of gas at sea level.  A few calculations more, and it turned out that a rig to neutralize one ton of rider, horse, rigging and controls combined would have to be about the size of a conventional truck semitrailer. A weight-neutralized Rogallo wing or some similar Parasail shape, tethered to a lightweight computer-controlled console-saddle, could control the attitude, pitch and yaw of the helium-filled wing with a series of lightweight, fast and efficient computer-controlled winches, in the wing itself or on the saddle-console, taking in or letting out line, allowing the rider to control the direction of gliding flight with a simple joystick.

Then I began to imagine how one would train a horse to fly. Surely it would start by attaching little helium-filled parasails to the colts at each stage of their development, on a schedule which didn’t interfere with their natural development but which allowed them to learn the skills of takeoff leaps, running landings, and the other new techniques required of an animal being trained to run in half mile strides.

There’s a special class of horses who seem like perpetual adoles­cent humans- strong, boundless energy, self-centered, love showing off, like to be ahead of every­body, still too stupid to be afraid when they ought to be, ready for anything. In other words, born for horsesailing. The horsesailing animal would have to be a special breed, but I am sure that horse people know exactly what kind of animal it would take.

I began to imagine what horsesailing would mean. It might be­come a new sport, one especially suited to the western United States and other vast areas of the world like it. These areas are still beautiful, remote, largely uninhabited lands. The early settlers rode painfully and slowly across them on horseback dragging wagons, but what if they could have sailed across the skies instead?

One of the reasons much of the West is so sparsely settled even today is be­cause it is so vast that it is inaccessible without real effort. No roads, plenty of canyons and mountains, and a long way between water. Only a hardy few today go on horseback pack trips into the wilderness, and almost none trek across the great heartland, the prairies and mountains.

Horsesailing could change all that. If you could cover five hundred miles in a day on horseback, leaping from hilltop to hilltop, across wide ravines and rivers, taking a hundred mile detour in a few hours, racing up the side of tall hills in a few bounds and leaping from the summit into a low cloud- if all this could be done, the plains and the mountain west could change forever.

With a horse trained to relax and enjoy the view while sailing, and to hit the ground running when the time comes, and with a lightweight outrider system which could be deployed if in the pilot’s judgement there’s a hard landing coming up, the horsesailer would be equipped to master almost all of the terrain in the American west.  If also equipped with a solar powered satellite-based communications system, a horsesailer could have instanta­neous communica­tions, whether they were stranded in the middle of the Canadian Rockies with a broken rig, or simply calling in to have a good meal with cold beer waiting at a checkpoint a hundred miles ahead on the crest of a New Mexico ridge.

I began to imagine the natural communities of the plains and moun­tains with villages springing to life as resting stops and accom­modations for touring horsesailers. I imagined horsesailing the American west, the Argentine Pampas, the remote valleys and plains of the Asian Steppes. I saw the towns of these regions becoming hubs for horsesailing expedi­tions for visitors from around the world, and the outlying regions develop­ing tourism resources around areas of previously remote natural resourc­es like springs, hot water spas, and other beautiful, remote garden spots in the wilderness, barely reachable before Horsesailing.

I imagined the ranching options possible with horsesailing technol­ogy, and the economic impact which such a technology would have on forestry and re­source exploration. I saw horsesailing as a new industry for horse-breeders, for resorts, for transportation.

I saw all of these things as if in a vision of another time and place, and concluded that while I might never go horsesailing in this life, im my imagination, it worked. Years after the initial moment of inspiration, as I drive the long road between Austin and the Hill Country, I still think as I pass through that rugged beautiful country, full of limestone hills, deep valleys and immense stands of mesquite and oak forest, how nice it would be to be going home on the back of a horse, sailing through those sunset dazzled clouds, instead of steering my old truck down a concrete trail.

But then I think – how wonderful it is, just to be going home at all with my dear Lisle, and I am truly grateful. For everything. For life. Still, as I look over at my sweetheart with her ear-pods on listening to some mysterious music that I’m quite sure that I will never understand, watching the miles roll by through my windshield, I dream that we might be Horsesailing together someday, up there, in the sunset.