Another subject we get asked about a lot. So here’s a bit about how we do it……
Firstly, there is no ideal horse for horse archery. We have had supposedly “bombproof” cobs run away in panic at the sight of a raised bow and “flighty” Thoroughbreds standing around totally not bothered by arrows being shot from their back. We think the most important thing (as with any equestrian discipline) is to have a horse that trusts you and to make sure you have a good solid foundation with the horse so that he knows you are someone who is up to the job of keeping him safe.
This does not have to be a long process; we have shown riding school horses within an hour that they can be OK with what we are asking them to do. But equally, with some horses, you can’t rush things, if they seem to be getting more anxious as time goes on, you need to stop and give them “take up time”, time to process what is going on. Sometimes a break of a few days can make all the difference, sometimes all that is needed is a few minutes with the pressure off so they can absorb what’s happening.
If you want to train your own horse to be OK with having arrows shot from someone on his back at a canter, you need to start with a horse that knows the rules on the ground. He should focus his attention on you, if you don’t have that, it is pointless to even begin a training session. He should follow you on a loose lead rein, keeping the “float in the rope” so he moves when you do and the lead rope never goes taut. He should stop and back up when asked without you having to pull on his head. He should be able to stand still calmly without fidgeting or trying to wander off and do his own thing. He should yield his quarters or shoulders when asked. If your horse doesn’t do all of this, we recommend that you start with teaching him how. There are plenty of trainers and websites out there who can help you with this, here is just one of them.
Once you have the basics in place, you can start showing him some of the strange equipment. We usually use our plastic Snake bows since if something goes wrong, we’re not risking damage to an expensive bow. It is also a good idea to use blunt arrows to begin with. Show him the bow, let him sniff it, start to gently move it around, initially in front of his head where he can see it with both eyes, then to each side. Some horses will move away from a bow held up or towards their side, this could be a result of learning to move away from a lunge whip for example. We need to teach them not to move if someone is doing something like handing their rider up a bow, so hold the bow up as he moves and just follow the movement calmly until the horse stops, in which case you immediately lower the bow and move it away. In this way the horse will learn that not moving away is the way to get the stimulus removed and the pressure taken off.
You need to do the same with your arrows and any other equipment you plan to use such as a quiver and don’t forget to show him the target itself. Some horses are sensitive to sounds as well as sights so they may react to the sound of the arrows clattering together – we had one who didn’t like the sound of an arrow being drawn from a quiver – so better to get them used to this on the ground before getting on board!
The next thing to do is to introduce the horse to the sight and sound of arrows being shot at a target. Have someone shoot some arrows and lead your horse towards them, on a loose lead, always of course in the safe areas behind the archer. Give the horse plenty of time to process what’s going on. If he needs to move away, don’t try and hold him in place as this just adds to any anxiety he may be feeling. I like to do this on a long lead rope so the horse has plenty of room to move away if he feels he has to. Make sure your archer knows to stop shooting immediately if necessary!
Then walk the horse up and down behind the archer in both directions so he can see the action out of each eye. Even if you yourself are only be going to be shooting right-handed, it is always useful to have a horse who can be used for a left-handed archer too! Again, at this stage if the horse feels the need to speed up a bit if he’s feeling anxious, have a long enough lead rope so he can do this without you having to let go. If he really tries to run away, you’ll be able to disengage his quarters and bring him to a stop if you’ve done your groundwork. We tend to do all of the desensitising work in just a headcollar (actually we do pretty much everything in just a headcollar). The last thing you want to do is inadvertently jab a horse in the mouth when he’s worried if he’s wearing a bridle and bit.
Once your horse is fine with all this, repeat the exercise with someone in the saddle. If you have a trained horse available, get yours to follow him along a run with a rider shooting calmly in walk. Again, it is best to keep a totally loose rein and if he wants to speed up, let him. Leave plenty of space between the horses to allow for this.
The next step is to hold a bow whilst mounted on your horse, who by this stage will hopefully not be worried about it. Hold it out on each side of the horse so he can see it on both sides. If he’s OK with this, draw it (being careful not to dry-fire it of course).
Watch your horse carefully; his ears in particular can tell you how he is handling the situation, if it becomes too much, go back a few steps until he is comfortable again. It is very important not to overface a horse and be prepared to take things at a pace he can handle.
The final step is of course to actually shoot an arrow from your horse’s back. Hopefully by the time you are ready to do this he will have seen arrows in flight and heard the sound of them hitting the target (some horses do not like this at all at first) so this should not be too much of a shock. Be prepared for him to jump or flinch the first time or two, leave the reins alone, give him room to move. We recommend doing this in an enclosed space such as an arena for the first time in case he rushes forward. You may wish to have someone on the ground by his head (on the side away from the target) but we have found it counterproductive to have someone holding the horse’s head since again it can raise their anxiety if they feel trapped. Some horses will throw their head up at first, generally because they are not happy about the sound of the arrow hitting the target. If you are at all worried about shooting from your horse for the first time, find someone more confident to do it for you ( we recommend a teenager for this bit!) as you don’t want your nervousness to communicate itself to the horse.
Another important thing to work on as well as all of the above is riding with no reins, giving your horse the responsibility for maintaining speed and direction without a contact, and introducing voice commands for go and whoa. The less you need to do as a rider the easier it will be for your horse. If letting go of both reins is too much at first, try riding one handed and teaching your horse to neck rein (invaluable for getting down to the start of the run with a handful of bow and arrows anyway). Perhaps letting go of the reins will be easier if you find something else for your hands to do!
The rider moving around in the saddle is another thing your horse will need to get used to. Some of the forward and back shots require a lot of movement – as do some of the more unusual shots such as that for the qabaq event. As with everything, start at a standstill, (without a bow at first) then at walk and make sure your horse is comfortable with everything at this pace before increasing the speed.
If you are careful and confident your horse should pick everything up and be able to cope with it all fairly easily. If you are not confident with shooting around your horse, or have not yet learned how to shoot (or done basic range safety), get help from a qualified BHAA coach. In the meantime, you can still work on the groundwork and ridden aspects of training your horse. Be safe and have fun 🙂