In 2014, I bought a 1982 Yamaha Maxim 750. Even before I got the bike, I figured the joy of riding it would be a lot like riding horses, which I rode growing up.
People sometimes compare them in forums (mostly motorcycle ones), but conversations don’t go much further than debates on which is more dangerous, or difficult.
The bike is more dangerous. But the horse is more difficult.
Horses have minds of their own, you have to ride to all kinds of emotions and animal instincts. It would be like if a motorcycle outright refused to change gears – or stop or accelerate or turn – when you asked. Or if it bit or kicked you, or aggressively tried to throw you off, or got scared and spooked, suddenly dodging sideways out from underneath you. And to stay on, all you have is the strength of your legs and your core – there are no handlebars to hold on to. (Only the very greenest riders attempt to use the reins in this way.)
But all this being said, bike are far more dangerous. They’re motor vehicles, surrounded by other motor vehicles, moving at much faster speeds on much harder ground. Far more people die from motorcycle mishaps than they do from taking a tumble off their horse.
But there’s so much more to be said about the two than danger and difficulty.
I did find a few longer blog posts out there from people like one horse trainer who purchased a dual-sport and then compared it to horses. Outside of that, though, I couldn’t find a ton of good, beefy pieces on how the two stack up. So, because I think there is actually quite a bit to be said about the two:
When you ride, especially as you do more dangerous things jumping or racing, you trust that the horse is going to run or land securely and you won’t get hurt. Riding motorcycles demands the same sort of investment. You are taking risks; you inherently have to have trust – yourself, the bike, and other drivers.
Ability (consistence; rhythm)
Horses have a pattern in the walk, trot and canter, which should always sound consistent – even when the tempo is sped up or slowed down. Engines, too, have a mechanical cadence. Consistent rhythm is fundamental to both, and a “break” here is an indication of a problem that demands attention.
There should be receptivity to thing being asked of a horse or bike – an ability to perform. As riders, we want a degree of “athleticism” or “capacity” in movement, whether muscle or machinery. It should feel easy and responsive – not like a negotiation or demand.
Good riding – whether with bikes or horses – demands a softness of the rider – a relaxation and lightness that is transferred through contact points – and an ongoing mindfulness and management of that softness. Breathing is a big part of this. And so is balance. All of this allows the rider to remain centered no matter how the horse or bike moves underneath them.
I talked before about the importance of composure while riding – an extension of centeredness and relaxation. The calm horseback rider will win the trust of the horse, and the calm motorcyclist has a far better chance of successfully riding an emergency.
Connection and feel.
The idea of “feel” is a pretty nebulous one… it’s understanding your bike’s or horse’s movement underneath you, having a delicate touch on the throttle or reins, knowing the exact moment to release, identifying “diagonals” or RPMs without looking, “relaxing” visual acuity and directing more attention to the tactile, and investing in that ongoing loop of feedback through contact.
Feel is not something you cleanly teach or learn, and many argue that it is something that you either “get” or don’t. It is intuition and instinct – many riders with excellent feel could not begin to explain what they do. They just know when they’re getting it right.
On bikes, “feel” should extend not only to the bike, but to our surroundings – e.g., the road and other drivers. The better we can anticipate potential and immediate changes in conditions, the better we’ll fare.
Impulsion, collection and “underneathness.”
“Collection” is transferring energy to a horse’s hindquarters in order to lift and lighten the front of his body. It’s working toward “impulsion” – getting the horse to “push” with his hindquarters instead of “pull” himself along with his forehand.
We want horses and bikes that feel “underneath” us – when we know where the energy is (rear tire / hindquarters), how much we’re getting, and whether we’re in control.
Respect (“Earning the right to ask” and asking.)
Bikes and horses, not the rider, hold the physical power in the partnership. It is the rider’s job to learn how to effectively work with the bike or horse – to approach the relationship with enough humility; to learn the limitations; and to ride with reason.
If you charge up to too big of a fence at too tight of an angle, you’ll probably end up in the dirt. Same thing goes for coming in to too tight of a corner too hot on a bike.
Focus and line of vision.
When you first start out riding horses over jumps, one of the most common things you’ll hear shouted at you from your trainer is “eyes up!” Funny enough, the same exact shouts can be heard in motorcycle riding classes. Because with either horse or motorcycle, the rider sets the direction by where they set their eyes. Stare at the ground, that’s where you’ll end up.
The sheer bliss of simply riding.
Though they are different in many ways – the horse and the bike – both of them offer an incredible pleasure to the right rider. Both of them inspire lifelong relationships; both cultivate blissed-out followers. Though not everyone finds joy in the same thing, those who find it in riding realize that it offers happiness unmatched by most anything else.
At the end of the day, the real similarities are based on your approach as a rider and how you gauge the beast or the machine; how much you decide each one matters, and in what way.
My fondness of the bike is a bit like a “city horse.”
In the 1968 film The Girl on a Motorcycle, Marianne Faithfull says:
“And the bike will be waiting, almost champing at the bit. No, much more virile than a horse – and fast; fast!”
And later in the film, Alain Delon says:
“A motorbike is closer to you than any human being. A car is something outside yourself. But a motorbike becomes part of you. You are the sensations, there in between your thighs.”
This closeness is true for horses, too.