Dropping the reins at a 20-mph gallop to nock an arrow sounds scary, but it’s a natural, familiar motion for mounted archers. And it’s even more natural for the horses. After all, 1,000-pound animals has been coupled with bows and arrows since the Bronze Age.
Mounted Archery is Born: 3300-1200 B.C.
Bows and arrows pre-date 3500 B.C., when Egyptian warriors used bronze arrowheads and longbows to shoot from foot. During the Bronze Age 200 years later, the Egyptians introduced horse-drawn chariots to combat.
Egyptian archers bravely rode their chariots into battle, drawing their bows from small two-wheeled platforms with waist-high guardrails. About 2,000 years later, archers ditched the chariots and shot from atop their horses, giving rise to mounted archery.
Why the switch? Yes, chariots boasted mobility, fast speeds and a relatively stable shooting platform. But they were expensive, prone to breakdowns, and restricted to good terrain. Horses, meanwhile, were resilient, fast and able to travel almost anywhere.
Is that how Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait some 20,000 years ago?
Native Americans Adopt Bows and Arrows For Hunting: 500 A.D.
According to Iowa’s Office of the State Archaeologist, American Indians didn’t adopt bows and arrows until 500 A.D., years after humans first arrived in the region. The bow’s mobility, accuracy and fast missile speeds made it the clear choice over spears. Plus, arrowheads could be made with fewer raw materials than spearheads.
“Indians used arrows to kill animals as large as bison and elk,” the Iowa state archaeologist reported. “Hunters approached their prey on foot or on horseback, accurately targeting vulnerable areas.”
These bows were not one-size-fits-all. Each was designed with the transportation mode in mind. “Bows used while mounted on horseback tend to be shorter than the bows used when on foot,” the archaeologist reported. “Since the length of the bow determines the stress placed on the bow when drawn, shorter bows tend to be made of composite materials while bows used when on foot can be made of wood.”
Hungarian archers, on the other hand, made bows from antlers.
Hungarian Soldiers Migrate on Horseback: 901-1000 A.D.
Forbes Contributor Kristina Killgrove reported that the Hungarian Conquests pushed mounted archers across the Carpathian Mountains into central Europe’s Carpathian Basin in 10th century B.C.
According to Killgrove, archaeologists discovered soldiers buried with archery-related weapons – including arrowheads, quivers and bows made from antlers – during a 1980s cemetery excavation.
To further support the claim, Killgrove cited research from Balázs Tihanyi and colleagues that states the anatomy of those buried with archery equipment clearly differed from those buried without it. Altered collarbones, and upper and lower arm bones suggested more muscle mass from shooting archery. “This pattern of skeletal changes is even found in children from the cemetery, leading the authors to conclude that ‘some kind of [archery] training began during childhood,’” Killgrove said.
Did the children shoot to please their parents? Doubtful. Archery was a way of life for the Hungarians. The Yabusame, on the other hand, shot to appease the gods.
Japanese Yabusame Shoot Mounted Archery to Appease the Gods: 1185-1333 A.D.
The Japanese introduced “Yabusame” – traditional archers on horseback – during the Kamakura Period. According to The Japan Times, mounted archery was introduced “as a way to appease the gods for prosperity and hone the Zen-like focus of samurai warriors.”
Although firearms led to the decline of bows and arrows as military weapons, the country honors the ancient art form with an annual festival. This year, 20 mounted archers participated in the 34th annual Asakusa Yabusame horseback archery display in Tokyo.
Serena Lynn Caballero is a Real-Life Merida: Present Day
Today, athletes like Serena Lynn Caballero combine archery and horseback riding into one breathtaking sport: mounted archery. That’s right: You can compete in 3-D archery, field archery, target archery and even mounted archery.
Mounted-archery courses vary by location from straight lines to zigzags. Others resemble barrel-racing courses. Target types also vary by location and competition. Some are 3-D foam targets shaped like animals. Others are multi-colored, six-ring targets measuring 80 centimeters across. These resemble but are slightly smaller than Olympic-style targets. And there’s one more huge difference: Mounted archers are never stationary when shooting from a horse.
The distance to the target continually changes as the horse gallops, 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 bowstring to nock the arrow, mounted archers must drop their reins and rely on instinct and touch. They also shoot without an arrow rest, making it even more difficult to gauge where to blindly nock the arrow.
“(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.”
It’s Your Turn: Some Time in the Future
Interest in mounted archery has increased in recent years, giving rise to sport’s own governing body, and numerous clubs and tournaments nationwide. So with a little courage, instruction and dedication, you can be a real-life horseback-riding, arrow-nocking Merida!
Interested in taking mounted archery lessons or seeing a demonstration? Talk to your local equestrian club or archery shop. Or kick your normal archery routine up a notch by shooting in a new setting. Switch up your bow from a compound to a recurve (or vice versa), or try shooting at a 3-D course, park or summer camp.
You’re the author of your archery history. Make your story a good one.