Category Archives: Information

Training a horse for horse archery

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 🙂


All a-quiver

So, quivers for horseback archery. People seem to be asking me about this a lot recently so I thought I’d try to get some information all in one place.

First off, they are somewhat difficult to find, at least in the UK. Standard archery quivers tend not to be a good idea, largely because they’ve been designed for an archer standing still on the ground and we really don’t do much of that. So you don’t want something that’s going to flap about too much as you gallop up the track, and you don’t want your arrows rattling around inside it or coming out all at once when you grab for one of them.

You can get quivers designed for field archery or bow hunting, they tend to have a better design for holding arrows immobile, and some of the traditional bow shops such as Alibow also sell quivers suitable for mounted archers. BowTack quivers have an extensive range, but they are in the US. There are a few other people around the world who make some beautiful quivers, Etsy is the place to look for some of these. This is mine which I had custom made by Knavish Designs in Australia, so the postage was considerable, but it was worth it. It has loops for 6 arrows, plus a pocket on the front for a few more. It attaches to a belt, sits on the right hip of a right handed archer (so on the opposite side from the bow hand) and has a strap to fasten it around the thigh to keep it in place.

Another style of quiver to be worn on the hip is this one, made for us by a  friend of ours more usually to be found making western tack, Sinjun Mae Leathercraft, it is longer so you have less of the arrow shaft sticking out the top and has room for about 12 arrows, held secure by the looped leather strip inserted into the top.

We have also experimented with making our own quivers. This style is designed to be worn on the same side as the bow hand, with arrows angled forwards rather than back, so needs to be long enough to avoid having too much of the arrow sticking out and getting in the way. I made this by folding a piece of leather in half, stitching it down one side and across the bottom, then making an insert with a folded strip of leather to hold the arrows in place. I’ve also seen the top done with bits of knotted leather thong, as shown in the second two photos below, a quiver made by Dan of the South Downs Horse Archers, a design shamelessly copied by us. Fairly simple to do (but hard on the fingers if you’re not used to sewing leather!), then you simply attach it to a ready-made belt.

But be warned, some horses don’t like the end of these flapping about (even with a piece of leather thong securing the bottom corner to the belt for a bit more stability) as they need to be worn higher round the waist and are not therefore attached to the rider’s thigh.

The final style that I have seen is a back quiver.  Legolas and Katniss et al seem to favour these on screen. But for horseback archery of course, the main consideration is that of safety. If you use a regular back quiver and you take a tumble, you risk your arrows falling out over your shoulder and that could be unpleasant if you happen to land on them. So the way to work this is again individual slots for each arrow to keep them in place, and the bottom half of the quiver keeps the points from stabbing you in the back.

Of course if you’re still hopelessly confused by the choice of styles and don’t know where to start, you can simply try shoving your arrows through a belt or sash (taking care where the points are in relation to yourself and the horse) to start with and see how you get on. Some archers prefer this approach to using a quiver at all.

And the BHAA is working on a prototype quiver design so hopefully soon you’ll be able to buy one on their website. Watch this space!

Finally, a selection of quiver photographs taken at various archery competitions, some of which seem to be home made according to an archer’s preference.  And yes, one of them is stuffed with hay to keep the arrows still!


HBA competitions 101

So here’s a question I get asked fairly often: how do horseback archery competitions work?

Well……it’s a bit complicated.

There are a fair few different types of competition, depending on which parts of the world you take the tradition from. Let’s start with the first type we were introduced to, the Korean competition.

Hailing from, well, Korea, this competition is usually run on a straight track over 90 or 150 metres. All the targets are near ground level between 5 and 7 metres from the track. The traditional Korean targets are things of beauty, multi-coloured and with a painted animal at the centre which looks to me like a tiger but I am reliably informed is in fact a boar…they’re not stripes, but tusks, apparently……

Traditional Korean target

The rules vary a bit depending on which type of run you are doing, but generally you have to start with your arrows in a quiver and you can’t draw one until you’ve passed the start line. Most Korean competitions start with a single target halfway down the track. Then they can change to two (angled) targets, or 3 or 5. Usually if five targets are used, the run is 150m long and you are allowed to start with one arrow nocked. There are also speed points available, but not unless you have actually hit a minimum number of targets.

There are various versions of this competition explained on the IHAA website, but as their diagrams are rather dull, I’ve found some prettier ones from this site (which also has a lot of interesting photographs you might want to look through)

Korean track

Next up, the Hungarian competition. I’m sure you can figure out where this one comes from……

Here’s a picture of the course.

comp_hungarian_show [1822586]
Hungarian track
Main difference from the Korean is the height of the targets, and that they tend to be circular. You have 3 faces to shoot at (unless you’ve got a fancy mechanical target that turns as you run along the track like our friends in France)  so this involves some forwards and back shots, making it a bit more technical. Again there are speed points, more information on the Hungarian competition here

Then there’s the Turkish style competition, also known as Qabaq. This involves shooting at a target overhead, using a blunt arrow or flu-flu. Flu-flu arrows look very pretty as well as having a silly name, since they are designed to make a somewhat gentler return to the ground than your average arrow……

bfletch (1)


Qiraj-Qabaq_ Turkish Style
Qabaq style

As you can see from the pic, this can also involve shooting at a target flat on the floor too. Often you have to pick an arrow up from an arrow stand before you shoot it. And there might be another knock down target to aim for after the overhead one. I have never tried this, but there is a certain technique to learn with regards to rider position when aiming overhead, as can be seen in this illustration…..


You might want to practise that a time or two with your horse first to get him used to it……

Another competition I’ve never tried but would love to is the Polish track, sometimes called a hunt track. Having watched a couple of competitions involving this, it basically looks like a cross country course with targets instead of jumps. So would be a good test of horsemanship. Targets are randomly spaced out along the track, not necessarily all on the same side or the same distance away. Sometimes 3D targets are used. Hard to find a handy little diagram of this, but here’s a photo of my friend Claire looking cool on the DHA Hunt Track in Sweden.

19551415-Tk93H [1822585]

More information about this Swedish competition, along with some video so you can really see what it’s all about  here (the site from which the above photo is stolen).

Those are the main styles of competition you’re likely to encounter. There are more. The Jordanian involves holding a bow and a sabre, which sounds pretty dangerous to me, and as well as not cutting off any fingers, stabbing your horse or dropping any weapons you need to shoot an arrow at a target on one side then pick up a smaller target from the ground with your sabre on the other.

Tir Jordanien

Then there’s the Masahee, a bit like the Korean but with targets up on stands you knock over shooting a blunt arrow, that get progressively smaller with each run. The Mamluk course is one of the more challenging, with targets at various distances, flat on the ground and on the offside. Other variations on a Korean course have been developed by different countries, such as the Texas Triple or the Australian Triple. The Japanese have their  Yabusame competitions using asymmetrical bows. I do not pretend to understand how these work. A subject for another blog post, perhaps…..

And finally there’s something called the Mogu competition. This involves one rider towing a large white ball behind his horse at a gallop with other riders behind trying to hit it with ink-covered blunted arrows. This sounds like enormous fun, but of course I’ve never tried it. I have however heard it described by someone who has as the most terrifying few minutes of his life…..

Just desensitizing the horse to having this large white thing bumping along behind him sounds like a challenge in itself, although judging by the speed of the horses in some of the videos I’ve seen, perhaps they didn’t bother!

mogu resized

To really give you an idea of how all this works, in the video below you can see footage from the 11th  Horseback Archery World Championships in Korea last year. First is the Korean single shot discipline, then the double shot, then serial shot.  Next is the Masahee and you can see just how small the targets get. After that the Qabaq and then finally the Mogu . Oh, and lots of flamboyant costumes, dancing and some truly awesome hats……



A brief history……

Mounted archery is often described as an ancient art undergoing a modern revival. So when exactly did this mounted archery idea start then? I decided a bit of research was in order and found out a thing or two….. the following is my somewhat random and incomplete history of horseback archery.

It would seem that mounted archers began to replace charioteers at the end of the Bronze Age and on into the Iron Age. The Assyrians are widely credited as the first to take it up, when they began hunting from horseback with a bow. This would seem to be a logical thing to do once you decide to start riding these creatures that can run so much faster than a man. A bow would have been the best way to bring game down, given the range it allowed. And of course it never took long for hunting skills to transfer to warfare, which was just bringing down a different kind of prey if you think about it.

I found some extracts from what looks like an interesting book online by Robert Drews, all about the beginnings of mounted warfare. According to this, when they first introduced mounted archers into the army in Assyria (which was part of modern day Iraq), they lacked the horsemanship skills needed to control the horse and the bow, so would be in pairs, one rider shooting and the other holding the reins of both mounts. Looks like that’s what’s depicted in this Assyrian relief from about 900BC.

assyrian archers [1490888]
Assyrian archers
However, of necessity, they soon got more proficient and this “lead rein” approach was no longer needed. Another interesting snippet from Robert Drews is the purpose of the large tassel under the horse’s head, as can be seen in the picture below. He maintains this was a type of martingale, the heavy tassel being suspended from the reins so that when the archer dropped his reins to shoot, the martingale’s weight would have fooled the horse into thinking that the rider still held them. Have to say, the horse looks none too happy about this arrangement……

The tassel martingale

Of course the Assyrians were not the only mounted archers getting proficient at the art. The Scythians too were one of the early people to master the art of mounted warfare. First appearing in historical record from about 800 BC, accounts vary as to the extent of their empire, but they seem to have been spread across a large region north of the Black Sea and their land may well have reached as far as the Caspian Sea. So they would have needed horses to get around all that lot…..

Mounted archery required a bow adapted to shooting from the back of a horse so a  composite bow appears to have developed in separate regions but at roughly the same time. A composite bow combines different materials (wood, sinew, and horn)  and utilizes them fully, creating a mechanical tour de force. More about these bows on this website, from which the diagram below is taken.

Asian composite bow

The Parthians, who had an empire in modern Iran from about 250 BC, were also renowned mounted archers. The “Parthian Shot”, in which the archer turns in the saddle to shoot backwards, was described as a contributing factor to their victory over the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.

The picture below shows a figure delivering a Parthian shot from the lid of a bronze cauldron of Etruscan (ancient Italian) origin from the sixth century BC. Interestingly the figure seems to be female. Some accounts of Scythian warriors, based on finds of grave goods, indicate that the women may have been as warlike as the men……

Amazon_Parthian_Shot [1490887]
Parthian shot
The peoples of the Asian steppes, most notably the Monguls under Ghengis Khan , perfected the art of mounted warfare over the centuries. The Mongul Empire reached its height in the 13th century. The Mamluks, originally slave warriors of mediaeval Islam , ended up ruling  Egypt and Syria for several centuries until the early 1500s. In Japan, meanwhile, from about the 4th century AD, Samurai warriors developed their own form of mounted archery, yabusame, using tall asymmetric bows.

Samurai mounted archer

I discovered  a  practise in Japan called inuoumono, which involved mounted archers shooting at dogs let loose in a circular arena. Originally intended as a military training exercise, it quickly became popular as a sport. Thankfully Buddhist monks were able to persuade the Japanese nobility to blunt the arrows to avoid killing the poor dogs and eventually it was banned completely in the 19th century.


As for any kind of tradition of mounted archery in our part of Europe, I have been unable to find much. The general consensus seems to be that whilst archers would ride to a battle, they’d dismount once there and shoot on foot. I did find a couple of tantalising glimpses of mounted archers however,  during a recent trip to see the amazing Bayeux Tapestry (which is in fact an embroidery), I noticed this:

Bayeux tapestry

And this is from a mediaeval manuscript showing the Battle of Bouvines in 1214:

WP_20150805_20_29_19_Pro 1
Battle of Bouvines

And even this, from the 14th century Taymouth Hours, another woman looking like she is shooting a longbow from horseback:

Taymouth hours
Taymouth Hours

As time went on, inevitably, as with its unmounted counterpart, mounted archery was rendered obsolete in the historical arms race thanks to the increasing use of firearms. But luckily for us, in recent years it has undergone a bit of a renaissance, which has been credited largely to the efforts of a Hungarian, Lajos Kassai.

So there you are, the results of my wanderings round the internet finding out more about the origins our favourite sport. I leave you with a rather gorgeous picture of a  mounted archer from a fabulously illustrated Mamluk manual of horsemanship form the 14th century. Just beautiful……

Add 18866_0266 (2)
Mamluk warrior