Equestrians in Grand Forks got a hands-on history lesson over the weekend, channeling the Mongols and nomadic tribes of central Asia.
Members of the Boundary Horse Association put on hip quivers and picked up bows for a mounted archery clinic on the club’s riding grounds July 15 and 16. About 16 riders and their horses were put through a series of step-by-step tutorials by Okanagan Khanate Mounted Archery instructors, then sent through a series of target practice runs on horseback.
The whole idea of this clinic is to help equestrians learn a new sport in a slow and gentle manner, said president Rick McCurrach. What they teach is full mounted archery, which is shooting traditional bows and arrows off a horse’s back while in motion. Their teachings are based on the Mongolian martial art discipline of mounted archery, though there is a lot of what he called “cross-pollination” of techniques and weapons from other nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of Asia, including Huns and Turks.
However, the Mongols had the largest continuous land empire in human history due to their military tactics, with mounted archery playing a large role in that success, he said.
“It’s a martial art in the context of a sport and we want to keep that going,” he said.
It was also a continuation of a clinic they ran last October, with 12 participants first starting on the ground with stationary archery to get a feel for handling bows with both hands, even if riders had archery training.
They then moved on to how to incorporate both riding and archery.
“This is a unique clinic because it’s a hybrid of both people who did that clinic and are now learning to walk, trot and canter with their horses, and we have beginners who are in their first clinic,” McCurrach said. “It helps instructors because they learn from each other, and it takes a little pressure off of us with so many people in this clinic. The more experienced can offer guidance when they can.”
When teaching students mounted archery, it’s imperative it’s done at a slow pace, he said. At this level the focus is on making confident riders and making sure the horses are calm and comfortable with projectiles being fired off their backs. It’s also a very different experience for the rider as they are steering their horses without their hands, while trying to aim and shoot while they move.
The thing they stress is the horse’s comfort. This activity doesn’t happen without the horse’s consent and confidence in their rider. A horse should be calm and focused, said vice president Robyn Skelly.
“You are not going to be able to ride and shoot if your horse is excited and bouncing around,” she said. “We say in this sport, working with your horse comes first, then you learn how to shoot.”
Almost any horse can be trained in mounted archery, but Skelly pointed out the ones often used were Mongolian ponies, Arabians and thoroughbreds for their smooth, light step. Horses with a pronounced bounce, like a Frisian or a heavy gait like a draft breed, are hard to aim and shoot accurately from.
Three kinds of bows were utilized, Tatar, Turkish and a Yuan/Mongolian hybrid. All three are a recurve bow commonly used by all the nomadic tribes, but with subtle design differences based on cultural differences, explained Archer Peters, head of safety and coaching. A Tatar has the handle slightly recessed inwards. A Turkish bow is slightly smaller and lighter, with a straight handle for a more aggressive, forward shooting style. Yuan/Mongolian bows are a bigger version of a Tatar.
Most people seemed to prefer the Turkish bows, Peters said. All of them are designed to be light, easy to load shot either from the left hand or right hand.
By Sunday riders were picking up the skills faster, with a few trying to ride and shoot at a trot or canter. Everyone had to learn how to shoot with both hands, no matter if they were right or left-hand dominant, as well as shoot at targets ahead, beside and behind.
The unique experience of mounted archery brought Lana Halisheff out to the grounds to learn a new way to bond with her mare, Sephira.
It’s a challenge learning to shoot a bow accurately alone, but to combine the two in a fun setting has taught her a lot about herself as a rider and about the skills of the other riders.
“It’s been so interesting, and the people are fabulous,” she said.
Like any other equine sport, like dressage and showjumping, it’s a tradition and a way to sharpen skills for both the horse and the rider, she said. Learning little details like thumb holds, loading arrows and the recurve action puts archery in a whole new perspective.
Halisheff said she doesn’t consider herself skilled, but did take the archery clinic last October. By the end of the day, she was hitting most of the targets, with a few being done at trots.
But still, she’s here for fun.
“I’m not a competitor, I’m here to learn,” she said.