It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want me to wake up pre-8am, the best tactic is to bribe me with ponies. If you then add another quirky sport into the mix I might even be enthusiastic about it – which explains why I was up at the ungodly hour of 5am a few weeks ago so that my lovely co-adventurer Siân and I could drive over to Hertfordshire for a day of Horseback Archery. (Yes it is a thing. Yes it is awesome.)
Our destination was The Centre of Horseback Combat near Hemel Hempstead: a beautiful Georgian-era red-brick yard set in peaceful countryside, and with two great pubs in easy walking distance (the Red Lion serves particularly delicious pain au chocolat. Just sayin’). As soon as we arrived we were greeted by a very handsome welcoming committee in the form of Dakota the stable-dog, who escorted us to the reception room where we found the walls lined with weapons and horse armour. My kind of place…
As is probably wise the day began with a safety briefing, of which my personal favourite bit was the caution against over-drawing the bow and shooting an arrow into your finger. Fortunately the supremely talented duo of Karl Greenwood and Zana Cousins-Greenwood are highly experienced instructors who have taught horseback archery to over 1000 people, so we knew that we were in safe hands.
We also got a brief synopsis of the origins of the sport, which is derived from a military practice used by the people of the Steppe region (i.e. Mongols, Parthians, Turks, Scythians, Sarmatians and Huns) in late BC/early AD. Over time the need for this kind of warfare reduced, but a handful of people in countries such as Korea and Japan continued to practice horseback archery as a sport and cultural tradition. In more recent years the word spread to Europe thanks to the work of Hungarian horse archery master Kassai Lajos, though it’s still relatively unknown in Britain.
Now sufficiently briefed, we were kitted out with bows, arrows and a single glove for our bow hand (I resisted the urge to do my Michael Jackson impression), and headed out to the archery range. No horses for this part, which was actually a blessing as learning to hit the target is hard enough when you’re standing still. The technique for horseback archery is different to normal target archery, so it was good that I remembered nothing from my previous attempts at shooting. Learning a new style is a lot easier when you don’t have to forget the old one first.
Karl took us through the technique step-by-step, increasing the speed as we got more confident. In a competition the archers have 14 seconds max to gallop down a 90 metre run, in which time they have to shoot three targets. We didn’t quite get to that stage, but after a couple of hours we were good enough for ‘archery bingo’ competitions, i.e. seeing who could shoot 3 arrows the fastest. After a few rounds I started winning – though if we’d been competing on accuracy rather than speed I doubt I’d have been so smug.
Once Karl was happy that we weren’t total liabilities, it was time to head up to the run and meet our mounts. I was introduced to Jupiter, a beautiful Andalusian gelding with an incredibly laid-back temperament: in fact if he wasn’t going down the run he was usually asleep. Like all the horses at the centre he knew his job, and it felt surprisingly normal to drop the reins and leave him to it while I focused on trying to get a bullseye. As first Karl and his excellent ground crew led us individually up the run, but with practice we were soon all trotting up the tack unguided, merrily shooting away (with varying levels of success). Surprisingly it’s not that much harder than shooting on the ground – you just have to aim lower and try not to think about falling off.
After lunch at the pub we had a quick refresher on the ground, and then it was back onto the horses for the afternoon – this time with a bit more speed. Going for a canter is always fun anyway, but doing it while wielding a bow and arrow and hearing the satisfying thud as your arrow hits the mark is something else entirely. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to buy a bow, arrows and a mongol warrior costume. The horse might have to wait though.
The Centre of Horseback Combat offers full day Horseback Archery courses at £175 per person, or half days at £95 pp.
They also run Rider Confidence Courses, Trick & Roman Riding lessons and Stunt Riding days – see website for details.