Tag Archives: horse

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 🙂


Our members – Vincent

Hello, my name is Vincent and my horseback archery didn’t start with any equine activities at all, in fact I started with my local archery club back in 2014, shooting target in the most part. I then found field shooting of interest as it had an instinctive element to it, and broke routine. It was much later after many offers of going to try riding from a family member I decided to go , and I wished I had of done it sooner. Shortly after a member within the mounted archers (Nicola), who is also a target archer, suggested that I give mounted archery a try after expressing a lot of interest.

I have had an amazing time so far! I am aiming to study for club horseback archer this year, and also would like to be able to pass archery knowledge onto others in the future. I’ve had a lot of help from some pretty amazing members, with a lot of my shortfalls in knowledge, and know none of it would be possible without them. Live, experience and learn!


Our members – Éowyn

My name is Éowyn. I got into horseback archery partly from my dad because he does ground archery and then my mum found out about horseback archery, let me try it and I liked it. I practised it a lot.

Our youngest member!
Our youngest member!

A few times on bareback and then in a field where we built a run and at some point I rode on one of our French friend’s western horses.

Practising at home
Practising at home

In 2015 I went to the BHAA championships for the weekend and there was a children’s competition. There were only 3 children but I won on my sister’s horse, Sky, and I won a shiny trophy and a rosette. It was fancy dress.

The trophy!

I like to practice on my mum’s horse Gandalf. He’s 22 but we can still ride him. He’s a lovely calm horse and the most sensible of the three, Elentari, Sky and Gandalf. Although I think they are all lovely. I’m a bit scared of cantering in general but okay with trotting whilst shooting but in the future I’m going to shoot whilst cantering in a competition… maybe.


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.

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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……

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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:

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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……

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Mamluk warrior