Imagine galloping your horse, dropping your reins, lifting your bow, and letting loose an arrow into a target. Think you could do it? Mounted archery is ancient history but it is making a comeback in the modern equestrian community. In fact, teams from around the world competed in the first international horseback archery championship in Hungary just last month. (The United States ranked sixth overall.)
Mounted archery combines exceptional horsemanship and shooting skill for a unique and exhilarating sport. You have to be a good rider and a good shot – and be good at both at the same time. “People want to do something different with their horse and this is definitely one of those things,” says Leah Earle, founder of the Battle Born Horse Archers, Nevada’s only mounted archery club.
The Reno-based club formed about three years ago. Its members hold regular practice sessions to improve their skills and some members take part in mounted archery competitions. The Battle Born Horse Archers are part of a larger trend sweeping the United States, where dozens of mounted archery clubs have sprung up over the past decade. With clubs from Alaska to Texas to Ohio, it seems mounted archery is taking off.
The U.S. is a relative newcomer on the mounted archery scene. The sport is much more popular in Europe and Asia, which have a longer history with it. Mounted archery is rooted in the equestrian culture of Japan, Turkey, Iran, India, Mongolia, Greece, and other countries. In America? Not so much. With the exception of some Native American tribes, mounted archery never really caught on in the U.S., until now.
“To be on a horse and to drop those reins and run… It’s incredible. You’ve got to trust that horse,” says Leah. Today’s mounted archers shoot Korean, Hungarian, or Persian style – which has to do with how the targets are arranged and the arrows are held. They run on straight tracks or cross-country courses and shoot stationary or moving targets. Sometimes they shoot targets that are more than 20 feet up in the air!
Mounted archery is not a sport for beginner riders or green horses, but experienced equestrians of all ages and disciplines will enjoy the sport. There are few restrictions on tack or riding style, so archers come from a variety of backgrounds, from reining to dressage. Mounted archery seems to attract riders who are looking to spice up their horsemanship with speed, challenge, and a little danger.
That’s what attracted Leah to the sport. Originally from Oregon, she did not grow up riding. Like a lot of kids, she dabbled in horses, but she honed her equestrian skills as an adult after moving to Reno in the early 1990s. She helped to start the now-defunct National Wild Horse & Burro Expo and experimented with different disciplines over the years. In 2014 she
decided to try out a new hobby: ground archery. She bought a compound bow and started watching Youtube videos to learn more.
“There on the sidebar a mounted archery video showed up,” Leah explains. She was enthralled by the videos of archers shooting targets off their horse. “I never even knew it was a thing,” she says. “There’s archery and there’s horses. You pick one or the other.” But once she discovered that the two could be combined, Leah was hooked. “It’s my passion now,” she says. “I’m 47 years old and I finally found it – the best sport to do with my horse. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Since then, Leah has worked tirelessly to spread the word about mounted archery in the Reno area, hosting clinics and doing demos at regional events. She’s hoping the Battle Born Horse Archers will continue to grow and that more chapters will form in other cities in Nevada. “I’d like to have chapters all over the place so that we can have more regional competition,” she says.
If, for example, a club were to form in southern Nevada, there could be a shooting season and competitions between the chapters. For now, members of the Battle Born Horse Archers have to travel to other states to see how their skills stack up against other clubs. “Some of us have to fly and rent a horse,” says Leah, who has competed in Arizona, Utah, and Texas.
The Mounted Archery Association of America, which formed in 2005, oversees most individual chapters in the U.S., organizing competitions and providing insurance coverage. There are nearly two dozen affiliated chapters across the country. It’s a small community, but members say it is full of camaraderie and support, even during competitions. “You meet incredible people,” says Leah. “None of the other horse disciplines have this type of tribe or community.”
Archery has soared in popularity in recent years, thanks in part to pop culture. Movies such as The Hunger Games and Avengers and television shows like Game of Thrones have made archery cool again, particularly with kids. The Battle Born Horse Archers has several young members.
“I’ve been riding ever since I can remember,” says 16-year-old team member Kaili Hill. The Reno teen has tried out a lot of disciplines, including English equitation and rodeos, but mounted archery is her new obsession. “I wanted to do something different,” she says. “Everyone was always into barrel racing and gymkhanas and why not be different?”
A couple of years ago, Kaili tried ground archery at a girl’s camp. “I started wondering if there was a way to incorporate both archery and horses together,” she explains. Kaili and her mother, who also rides, started looking online and found the Battle Born Horse Archers. They’ve been training together with the club ever since. “It’s just something I really clicked with,” Kaili says.
Kaili competed in Arizona in 2016 and plans to do so again this fall. She says mounted archery has increased the bond with her horse and her horsemanship skills. “I love it so much. I try to practice as much as I can.” In fact, this year the high school junior is
cutting back on cheerleading, her other hobby, to focus more on mounted archery. “This is going to be one of my top priorities this year,” Kaili says.
Most members of the Battle Born Horse Archers have targets set up at their homes so they can practice, but they try to get together every couple weeks to practice as a group. Together they work on the ground and in the saddle, perfecting their balance, form, and aim. They even have an ATV that pulls a barrel with a saddle on it that they can ride. “So you can work and don’t have to focus on your horse. You can focus on your shooting,” says Leah.
Mounted archery does require some specialized equipment, which means you can’t just go to your local archery store to buy bows and arrows. Today’s mounted archers prefer to honor the historical tradition, which means no compound bows. “There were no sights, there were no arrow rests. You had to shoot off your hand,” explains Leah. “A lot of it is steeped in history and that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”
Because the sport is still small, there are only a handful of people making gear for mounted archery. The preferred high-end handmade recurve bows start at $900 and have a nearly year-long waitlist. But that’s the exception – a decent starter bow costs about $70. “People that have horses, they have an expensive hobby anyway. We’re just going to add a little bit of equipment to that,” says Leah. “But you can get into it as least expensive as you can and work your way up.” In addition to a bow, you need arrows, a quiver, and some targets and
you’re ready to start shooting.
Just about any horse can be used for mounted archery, as long as they can maintain a gait when the reins are dropped and respond to leg cues. “Most horses take to it really easily,” says Leah. Of course, basic desensitization is still required for most horses. Horses must accept the movement of the bow above and behind their head, the sound of the arrows being shot, and the sound when they hit the targets.
Even with practice, mounted archery is a dangerous sport. Horses can trip and fall or bolt, and the equipment is inherently dangerous too. Mounted archers shoot arrows with field tips which are made for target shooting. “They are tips that could kill or maim if you were to hit somebody or your horse,” says Leah. Because of the risk, the Battle Born Horse Archers take safety seriously. They have strict insurance requirements and protocol during practice sessions.
New archers are encouraged to start slow. “You don’t have to do a canter right away,” says Leah. “Start at a walk and build up. Some people even do this driving with their cart and their mini.” There are walk-trot classes in the competitions for beginners as well. And if you don’t have a competitive urge, you can just shoot for fun. Many archers say the sport has helped them to build up confidence or get over other riding issues.
Even at a walk, mounted archery is pretty exhilarating. “We may not be doing it for food or for warfare, but this is actually a martial art, and to be doing it on the back of a horse is very empowering,” says Leah. “You’re shooting a weapon off the back of your horse!” There certainly aren’t many riding disciplines that let you do that.
To really get a feel for the sport, I decided to try it out myself. Last month my horse and I participated in a beginner mounted archery course organized by Battle Born Horse Archers. The clinic was led by Hilary Merrill, a Petaluma, California-based riding instructor and internationally ranked mounted archer. Eight riders and horses attended the clinic, along with a handful of auditors (including one woman who came all the way from Los Angeles).
The clinic began with us new archers getting acquainted with the bow and arrow. With no prior archery experience, I was a fish out of water, awkwardly fumbling with the unfamiliar equipment. At one point I accidentally dry fired the bow to the audible gasps of horror from the more experienced archers. (Sorry!) I failed to hit a single target, despite the fact that they were 50 feet away. It was not an encouraging start.
Next, we mounted and hit the track. We practiced balance and form at a walk, trot, and canter, and then started shooting. I shot a lot of arrows and hit a lot of sagebrush, but no targets. The hardest part of mounted archery is learning how to do many things quickly and seamlessly. Canter, look at your target, get in a two-point position, drop your reins, pull your arrow, snap it onto the bowstring and hold it, then release – all while never taking your eyes off the target and simultaneously ensuring your horse is straight and maintaining the gait.
Mounted archery is probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried to do while riding and I began to think it wasn’t my forte. But, by the very end of the second day, I actually started hitting the targets. I hit a bullseye in the last minutes of the clinic. Granted, it was at a walk, but it still counts! My arm was bruised and my whole body was sore by the time we finished, but I also felt a strange excitement. There’s something primal about mounted archery, and let’s be honest, you just feel cool doing it.
Leah warned me that mounted archery was addicting. She wasn’t wrong. I’ve already ordered a bow and equipment and am planning where to build a track with targets on my property so I can keep practicing. Battle Born Horse Archers welcomes anyone who is interested to come join them at a practice session. “It’s the most fun you will have on your horse ever,” says Leah. “You’ve got to try it!”
Learn More: www.battlebornhorsearchers.com
Story by Samantha Szesciorka
Photos by Carol Schley