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.
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……
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.
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……
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.
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:
And this is from a mediaeval manuscript showing the Battle of Bouvines in 1214:
And even this, from the 14th century Taymouth Hours, another woman looking like she is shooting a longbow from horseback:
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……