It’s a warm summer day. Your hair blows back as your body hurtles forward. Your legs are locked in place, and your knuckles white with tension as you grip the reins. You’re entrusting everything to the horse beneath you, and the ground rumbles as it gallops at 20 mph, bouncing you with every stride. Your heart races in sync with the hooves, and then you loosen your grip, drop your reins, nock your arrow, and let it fly.
Archery and horseback riding are highly technical sports. It takes courage to stare down a target and even more courage to climb atop a big, strong horse. Yet athletes like Serena Lynn Caballero combine the two skills into one breathtaking sport: mounted archery.
A friend introduced mounted archery to Caballero, who has ridden horses over 18 years. Shooting a recurve bow was difficult at first, but after arrowing her first bull’s-eye while seated on a walking horse, Caballero was hooked.
Easy, right? Wrong. Mounted archers are never stationary when shooting from a horse. The distance to the target is continually changing, so they must keep their eyes on the target to maintain balance and know where to shoot.
This also requires “blind-nocking” arrows. Instead of looking down at their bow to nock the arrow on the string, mounted archers must rely on instinct and touch. They also shoot without an arrow rest, making it even more difficult to gauge where to nock the arrow without looking.
Blind-nocking takes practice, which she does while watching TV or shooting flat-footed like a normal archer. In fact, Caballero practices daily to nail down a flawless technique.
You might have seen Hawkeye blind-nock arrows in the “Avengers” movies, but I doubt he can do it while riding a horse. Letting go of the reins and trusting the 1,200-pound animal below takes nerve, making Caballero and her horse, Moonshine, the superheroes in this story.
“Our relationship is best described as a partnership,” Caballero says of Moonshine. “She is 1,200 pounds of power and free will. I respect her. I treat her as I would want to be treated. She doesn’t have to do anything for me. She could easily buck me off and hurt me, but she doesn’t. She knows I love her and am grateful for the time we spend together.”
It takes about two years, on average, to train a horse for mounted archery. Two years, twice-daily feedings and three to five days of riding a week create a deep horse-and-rider love.
Feedings and rides are not mundane chores for Caballero and Moonshine. They bond by riding trails and visiting neighboring ranches.
“I don’t want (Moonshine) to get too bored or have her hate the bow and the track,” Caballero said.
Sometimes fun shoots and fun rides are just what athletes need to refresh their core enthusiasm for their sport. And a change of scenery from the track to the trail is just what Moonshine and Caballero need to maintain a happy, healthy relationship.
“(Mounted archery) teaches you and the horse so much about one another,” Caballero said. “You grow to trust yourself and each other. Your relationship blossoms into something special and unique. You do your job of riding and shooting, and the horse does its job to maintain speed and gait without flinching, and comes to an easy stop when the run is complete.”
Growing that relationship and developing consistent form are vital for both. “When I began, it came easy to me to hop on a horse and let go of the reins and shoot,” Caballero said. “The hard part was getting the blind-nocking down for the required speeds for the courses.”
Caballero and Moonshine’s hard work has delivered international success. Besides competing in Poland, Hungary and the Korea World Championships, Caballero leads the South Texas Archery Riders, and hopes to grow mounted archery in the United States by earning a spot on the Mounted Archery Association of the Americas board of directors.
Caballero has unbridled enthusiasm for mounted archery.
“When I step into the stirrup and climb into the saddle, I’m thrilled,” she said. “It’s my time to share my joy with the world, and to feel the unbridled bliss of galloping at 21 mph and shooting from my soul. Like any athlete, I have moments or days that aren’t the best, whether it’s my attitude or shooting. But I try to remind myself that that’s life. I look up at the stands and remember we’ve all had those moments and it’s OK. I look forward to the next run down the track, thinking only of the positives.”
Caballero is a real hero who faces real challenges. From letting go of the reins to blind-nocking to improving her best scores, Caballero embodies courage and determination. She’s shown us what it’s like to shoot archery #likeagirl, and she’s a real-life role model to young archers.