Recently, the question of whether horse archers are athletes, has arisen quite frequently in my social circles. I thought I would throw my two cents into the arena on this one.
In most sports, an athlete has a few considerations when training and performing. First, the athlete’s fitness level for that particular sport. This level is higher in some sports such as football, and lower in others such as golf. Second, the athlete’s equipment, which might consist of a uniform supplied by the team, a bat or racquet, and maybe a helmet. Third, practice, which at competitive levels needs to be consistent and usually involves a coach of some sort. Fourth, at very high levels, sports psychology training might be involved.
In horse archery the athlete has many more considerations. The following list displays those considerations of the equestrian archer athlete.
· The archer’s physical fitness level. While many unfit people ride horses, at a competitive level most equestrians are relatively fit. To shoot at a target accurately from horseback, the archer needs to be standing and balancing in two-point and “floating.” Floating is compensating for the rise and fall of the horse’s back by using one’s legs like a spring. When the horse moves up, the archer moves down and vice versa. Moreover, the weight of rider, tack and equipment should not exceed 20% of the horse’s weight, especially if the rider is inexperienced and does not have a “light seat.”
· The practice. Consistent practice both on the ground and on horseback can be challenging for horse archers. Space is usually at a held at a premium and many equestrian facilities do not allow horse archers on their premises, either due to insurance issues or because they can make far more money utilizing that space for Pony Club or other group lessons. Then there is the “shooting pointy things on the property” fear. Insurance coverage is increasingly hard to find for horse archery clubs and some clubs have closed down due to that very issue.
· The basic archery skills. In horse archery, there are close targets, long shots of over 50 meters, targets on the ground almost underneath the horse, targets directly overhead. Horse archers take front shots, side shots, back shots, shots while jumping, and off-side shots that can sometimes be shot with the non-dominant hand such as a right-handed person shooting left-handed. How many ground archers can do all that and hit those targets while at a run, on horseback?
· Training. All horses are not created equal and archery horses must be desensitized to the bow and arrow noise as well as arrows being launched in all directions including over their heads. They should be desensitized to things that might distract them around or near the track such as spectators, signs, banners, targets, judges, etc. They also need training to be ridden without reins, and they need to be taught to maintain whichever specific steady pace the rider needs for each particular event. Riding without using the reins involves training the horse to move with self-carriage as horses will not usually maintain that when not collected by their rider. If the rider is not using reins, it is difficult to keep the necessary carriage, especially as horse archers shoot while standing. Without self-carriage, the horse’s core will disengage, and its back will suffer along with the gait and balance. I have seen many archery horses with sore backs due to lack of core and self-carriage training. Basic training such as adopting the correct lead, smooth changing gaits, and basic jumping are all other factors to take into consideration when training a horse that the archer will ride with minimal rein usage. Sometimes the archer must slow their horse down from a canter to a stop to shoot a target while standing still. This can be challenging when the horse has it in its head to canter off towards the finish line.
· The horse’s fitness level. Warmups are important and although I have been to events where riders do not warm up their horses, it is important to take time to do this rather than just gallop down the track. When you get to game day and your horse turns up lame, do you scratch from the competition, or do you push your horse and risk it being in pain or worsening the injury? I have seen horse archers ignore lameness or an injury and push an unfit horse to canter down a track.
· Connecting with the horse. I usually describe two types of riders; those who sit on their horses and those who “have a seat.” The former is someone who has learned to ride technically but doesn’t have the confidence of a warrior on horseback. At the slightest problem, they become unbalanced and maybe fall off. This is quite common in English style riders who only ride in arenas, never taking their horses on a trail and never going for a good flat-out gallop. It is also common in western style riders who have only ridden on trails at a walk. The latter is someone who will not become unseated and really moves as one with the horse, a real natural athletic partnership. This is not something you create in a dressage arena, this is something you create by testing your boundaries, riding bareback, posting without stirrups to develop legs and reactionary speed, and working with your horse in different environments to develop a deep knowledge of its personality.
· Bows, arrows, quivers and more. Archery equipment comes in all shapes and sizes. Knowing the right fit for the archer is important to be able to perform well. As skill levels progress, equipment changes. It is also expensive to replace broken or lost arrows when training regularly. Different styles of archery demand different equipment. Some people might wear arm guards, while others wear archery gloves and still others use thumb rings.
· The horse’s tack. If your saddle does not fit your horse properly, your horse will develop a sore back. This is more common than you might imagine. As horse archers shoot while standing, this throws the weight into the front of the saddle, tipping it forward and pinching the horse behind the shoulder blades. A rear cinch used properly on western saddles, or a modified English or endurance saddle are all important factors to consider. The reins need to be connected to the saddle but with an elastic or breakaway connection in case the horse trips.
The psychological aspect:
· Once you have all your equipment, a well-trained and healthy horse, a decent amount of experience on horseback, then you have the psychological aspect to consider. This affects all athletes. Horses can hear a rider’s heartbeat! On competition day, when your heart is racing at the start of a track, the horse can sense that excitement and will most likely act accordingly. To be able to remain calm to keep your horse calm is a challenging skill to learn. Target anxiety, where the archer overthinks a shot, is common to horse archers as there are targets at varying distances and degrees of difficulty. It is easy to stress out over the harder targets and almost just as easy to miss the easy ones by being too complacent.
Finally, there is the cost and time involved. Horses are expensive to maintain and consume time with feeding, cleaning, training, etc. Consider the costs of stabling, vets, food, supplements, farriers, transportation to competitions with a truck and trailer, and the list goes on. After all this, maybe the archer’s horse turns up lame on game day and they need to cancel, forfeiting the cost of the competition.
These are the basics of what a horse archer should know. They may not be extreme power athletes like some, but they need to be able to take all this into consideration and make good decisions rather than just show up for training. To stand up and shoot from the saddle of a 1000-pound animal that is somewhat in control at a canter or gallop takes a lot of preparation. While the Olympic Games includes such sports as curling and golf, horse archery takes a lot more athleticism, and just as much dedication, and in my opinion, is a lot more fun to watch!