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A Lesson In Mounted Archery

Mounted Archery

Mounted Archery is a Medieval sport of champions that has maintained a hold on the horse world for more than 10,000 years. Although the styles of competition vary, the pursuit of excellence is a common thread.

I drove my rented car through the Cascades on the morning of June 10, reveling in the gorgeous springtime of the Oregon mountains. Two hundred miles from Portland, the Cascade Mounted Archery Center was holding a clinic taught by international gold medalists Holm Neumannn and Katie Stearns, and I was on my way to learn to shoot archery from horseback.    

id-afternoon I arrived at the ranch, nestled underneath the Sisters (two tall, snow-covered peaks) in the heart of the Deschutes National Forest. The plan had been to fit me to a horse and saddle for the clinic, but Mother Nature had her own agenda. Wind whipped through the barns and trees, so we took a brief tour of the horse facility, then returned quickly to the house where I had a chance to get to know my hosts, Holm and Susan Neumann.

Holm is a semi-retired orthopedic surgeon who has his fingers in many pies, including horse breeding and mounted archery. His father was an archaeologist, and many summers of helping on digs have filled Holm with the lure of history. Susan has raised gaited horses for many years, and has retired from nursing to her beautiful ranch in Sisters, OR, where she presides as one of the most gracious hostesses I’ve met.

The first day ended in exploring all of the wonders of the ancient world contained in their home--from Bronze Age daggers to reproduction armor to every imaginable kind of helmet, sword, and bow. I went to bed with high expectations of my first day of shooting.

Day 1
We rose bright and early and gathered in the kitchen for breakfast and to go over our day’s agenda. We were joined by the other clinician, Katie Stearns, who lives and works on the Neumanns’ ranch while she attends college at the University of Oregon.

Every day, we began with ground work, and by 8:30 am we were in place. The first morning, I was joined by fellow students Diana Troyk, an archer from Phoenix, and Dameon Willich, who runs the Seattle Knights, a medieval warfare reenactment troupe. Both are experienced horse archers, so I was a bit nervous.

Holm set us up 10 yards from the ground targets and explained how shooting with a horse bow works (see the sidebar article). By the time we broke for lunch, I had learned how to protect both the thumb the arrow passes over and the thumb pulling the bowstring. I had figured out more or less where I needed to aim to hit the target. My fingers hurt and my arms ached, but it was the kind of good pain you get from working hard and intently at something.

On the afternoon of Day 1, we began looking for a saddle to fit me (for those of you who haven’t met me, I’m six feet tall). I was mounted on an Arabian horse with whom I didn’t really mesh, and was first given a very nice Stubben English saddle. Katie took us for a lovely trail ride into the forest to give the horses a chance to warm up. Unfortunately, the saddle was far too small for me, so when we returned to the ranch, we switched it for a Peruvian gaited horse design. This saddle was not quite right for me either, as it threw my legs forward and didn’t allow me to sit up properly. By the end of the afternoon, I was frustrated by both horse and saddle—I had been unable to do much shooting.

Day 2
The next morning I could hardly drag my tired body into the kitchen for coffee. Every muscle in my arms, chest, and upper back hurt.  Even my feet hurt! Four hours of ground work had done a number on me. But Susan’s cheerfulness and Diana’s assurance that getting out on the shooting range again would help soon had me ready to go. At 8:30 we trooped out to shoot, this time joined by Darran and Roberta Beene and Reginald and Larkin Ravenswood, who had driven in the afternoon before.

On this morning, we did some more advanced shooting, including using targets with multiple bullseyes on them, and shooting from longer distances. As we got farther away from the targets, I became more accurate. At about 40 yards, I couldn’t miss. Unfortunately, the targets in a competition are quite close to the horse, but the exercise helped me with my aim.

After lunch, I was mounted on Pele, Holm’s competition horse. Pele is a Mangalarga Marchadore, a gaited breed which is the national horse of Brazil. Holm and Susan raise Mangalargas, and the little gray was a fine example of the breed. I was also put in a Brazilian saddle which fit me quite well and allowed for all the movement I needed on horseback.

As we had the day before, we warmed the horses up with a ride into the forest, then returned to the horse archery range Holm has built next to his barns. The partially enclosed space includes a fenced alley, down which the archer rides. To the left are targets of every shape, size, and height. Some are made from straw and others from styrofoam. The small round targets at ground height are used for the Korean style competition, while a grouping of large, tall targets are used for the Hungarian style. Holm’s course has both of these and more.

Our exercises each day included a great deal of riding hands-free down the alley at each gait. We dropped our reins and walked down the alley in a line, then came back to the beginning and trotted down. On the first day, we left our bows on a rack at the top of the course and rode with our arms to the side, doing “windmills” and twists for balance. On Day two, we carried our bows during these exercises.

By our third pass, we could walk and shoot, then on our next pass we could trot and shoot. I was able to hit almost every target at a trot riding Pele. As soon as the first person in line got back to the top of the course, we began loping one at a time through the course.

The alley is designed with a left-hand curve at the top so that you can drop your reins and have an arrow nocked as you enter the course. This design also helps train the competition horses to pick up the left lead. As you lope, you feel the motion of your horse through the saddle. The best time to release an arrow is when the lead foot hits the ground. You are also nocking, aiming, and shooting—there’s a lot to think about. As I got ready to try my first lope-down, Katie said, “Try to get two arrows off—just concentrate on getting two off. Then the next time you can try to get three off, then four. But this time, just try for two.”

In 160 yards, I barely managed to get two arrows off.

By the end of the afternoon, I could nock an arrow without looking down, and in most cases I could get three off before we reached the end of the course.  And I hit at least two of the targets. All in all, I would call the day a success.

Day 3
Sunday morning I was up so early, I made the coffee!

Although my muscles were still complaining, I was thoroughly hooked. I couldn’t wait to get out and play
some more.

On the shooting range, we started the morning with games. We played Tic Tac Toe by shooting a crisscrossed target against a partner; we did a timed shoot to see how many arrows we could loose in 30 seconds; and we shot at moving targets rolled across the ground in front of us. Diana also gave a demonstration on how to hold multiple arrows in your bow hand so that drawing and nocking could be speeded up.

Then we went straight to the course and got to work.

I tried holding one arrow in my bow hand on my first lope down. Although it feels awkward to hold the bow and an extra arrow, it did increase my nocking speed significantly. On my next lope down I held two and by the end of the morning, I was able to hold three or four. I was also able to get four arrows off during the lope down, although I found that my aim was off. It’s something to work on for the future.

We ended by practicing briefly for an event called mogu, in which a canvas covered ball is pulled on a rope behind a moving horse. The object is to hit the ball with an ink-tipped arrow as it bounces along at breakneck speed. I got two runs at the ball, the second time shooting from the off side. I hit it!

Unfortunately, Day 3 was also my last day. This brief journal can hardly describe the fun or the hard work involved in this clinic. As I drove away that final afternoon, all I could think was, “Where am I going to build an archery range?”


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