This Rural Life: Taking Aim at Mounted Archery

Kristin Erlitz on her horse Thunder, showing the communication and trust between horse and archer.
Courtesy photo

Kristin Erlitz

Imagine traveling 90 meters in 14 seconds, taking aim at well-placed targets, wind whipping past your bow as you draw back. Inhale – hoof beats keeping time and rhythm with the beat of your heart. Exhale – you take aim and let go. The world seems to stop for that half second, that one stride it takes for the arrow to soar through the still air. You watch and wait. THWACK! It contacts the target. Your heart leaps with excitement, but you must stay focused. There is another target ahead and your horse gallops on. You reach down for your next arrow and speed load, never taking your eyes off the path ahead. Breathe. Your horse is listening, totally in tune with your body movements, waiting for you to shift your weight for the curve ahead. Breathe. This time the target will be behind you. Keep your legs straight, turn your torso, spot your target, draw, exhale, release, and wait. This is a mounted archery course.

Mounted archery is the fastest growing equestrian sport and martial art in the United States, and worldwide. New clubs continue to pop up across the US map every year, and the growth is exponential. So – what is mounted archery?

Mounted archery was originally employed as a hunting and warfare tactic; it goes back thousands of years. It’s a lot easier to take down game moving at full speed when you can keep up with them on horseback. Militaries used mounted archers who could start releasing arrows at a great distance, and continue to do so within close range, drastically reducing the enemy’s numbers in a short amount of time. In modern times, while many people still use mounted archery as a way of hunting larger game, it has become more of a sport and martial art within the equine and archery communities.

There are competitions, nationally and internationally, that focus on speed as well as precision. It’s also a great recreational activity for folks of all ages and abilities. None of the equipment is high powered. Archers use traditional bows and arrows with natural fletching (feathers). Arm guards and finger gloves are recommended to help protect the archer while shooting. The horses that are used have been trained to ride off of your body movements, rather than artificial aids such as reins. They are also taught that the sights and sounds of flying arrows are nothing to worry about.

There are many styles of courses, featuring targets in varied positions and spacing, making each course more difficult. Targets may be in front of you, alongside, behind, and even above you. Some courses create a physical barrier to keep you on track, while others are run in an open field, challenging the horse and rider to communicate with each other through body movements. It is, after all, not possible to use much else when your hands are full of bow and arrows. This sport has even adopted a speed-loading drill, in which riders practice pulling an arrow from their quiver, getting it nocked, and shooting without the need to look down.

One of the best attributes to the Mounted Archery community, aside from the comradery, is the fact that anyone is welcome to participate. There are no restrictions on age, ability, background, or discipline. Our local club, Roving Knights in Stevensburg, VA, hosts all manner of participants from dressage riders to rodeo queens, Paso Finos to Percherons, and everything in between. Some participants have more horse experience, some have more archery knowledge, and still others are just starting out in both. Host facilities usually have spare equipment and seasoned horses for those archers who may not have their own, or for folks who are curious to try the sport. Anyone can be a mounted archer as long as they have the desire and are willing to learn. Our number one rule is respect for our horses and each other.