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“When the competitor is shooting the qabaq, the spectators must look at the arrow….. This is not for safety, but because arrows get lost, we need to know where they land…”
And so, we are introduced to the ancient sport of archery on horseback. A rider sets off at a gallop on his little Arab x Caspian horse, crosses the start line with a yell that would pause any would-be attacker, and nocks his arrow onto his bow string. Within a few strides, his horse has taken him directly under a small tin target, hanging from an upright pole. The archer leans down to his horse’s neck, looks up and over his left shoulder and fires his arrow straight upward, hitting the target with a solid thunk… His arrow, although diverted having hit the target, goes up, up, up, before turning slowly in the air and coming lazily back down. It’s at this point that all of our eyes are on this falling arrow, not to prevent one of us from being stabbed, (which yes, could happen, even though the arrow is blunt) but to help find it afterwards.
A friend and I had been invited to The Silk Road Cup – Iran’s famous international horseback archery challenge. A new sport, a new adventure, a new country and the chance to catch up with an old friend… Was there any way that I could refuse? We travelled to Tehran, capital city of this stunning country, then went 80km north west out to the smaller town to Kordan, where we met up with competitors, trainers and spectators from over 30 countries, all passionate about their unusual sport. (Archery is not for fun, we were told – it is passion, it is life… How many sports inspire such commitment?) Under the umbrella of WHAF – World Horseback Archery Federation and ITPF – International Tent Pegging Association, these events happen all over the world and there is a lovely close-knit community feel to the whole event. Within a couple of days, my friend Julie and I were welcomed into the community, and yes, it is definitely an experience that I want to repeat.
Obviously, riders could not bring their own horses. Competitors were there from Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Hungary, Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Korea and, and, and… So, to move horses would be virtually impossible as well as hugely expensive. All the horses were lent from local clubs, pooled for the riders to try and choose. Although most were small – the biggest being about 15hands, they were strong, tough and very game.
How does it work? A track is built, 180m long, about 3m wide. The horse will gallop straight along this track, giving the rider the chance to let go of the reins and shoot a target / series of targets from the horse. There’s a huge number of different types of competitions – it seems as many as there are dressage tests or showjumping classes. The four chosen for the Silk Road Cup were Korean, Hungarian, Turkish and Qabaq. Marks are awarded for hitting the target, for hitting a certain area of the target and for speed – the faster horses are highly regarded for experienced competitors, but the faster the horse, the more challenging it is to be accurate with your shooting. The biggest challenge on the trial days were horses who spooked at the spectator tents, weren’t consistent in their canter, lunged right or left, or were just too quick for their less experienced jockeys. I had originally thought – the horse just has to gallop in a straight line, between two chains, but an awful lot can go wrong between those two chains.
The interesting thing for me, was to see really good biomechanics in action. As a rider, you need to be balanced and not have to think about your riding. You don’t shoot sitting – even the most comfortable of horses produces too much movement and bounce to be accurate in your shooting, so you stand, not vertically, but high enough that you are independent of the horse’s back. And here comes in so much of what I teach. If you stand on your stirrups, your feet scoot forwards and you lose your balance backwards – putting you behind the timing to get a good shot. If you perch forwards in jumping position, you don’t have room for your bow or your shot. You need to have a very solid leg position, hip remaining positively above the heel, controlled lower leg so you aren’t kicking your horse along. Any horse who needs kicking is a huge handicap in this sport – how do you maintain your balance and aim if you are having to kick? Your core needs to be strong and engaged to hold your position, legs toned and powerful, totally independent hands and awesome use of your lats and upper body strength to draw back your bow and shoot accurately. I was slightly in awe of the really professional riders…
The Korean competition has two targets. The rider must begin with no arrows in hand, and as he crosses the start line, he draws an arrow from his quiver, nocks it to his bow, shoots the first target as it is in front of him, and then shoots the second target as it is behind him. First test – hold the horse in a good canter, collect and set up the arrow smoothly and be able to shoot straight, even when turning from the waist and aiming backwards.
The Hungarian track is three large targets in the middle of the field, set touching edges, forming 3 sides of a polygon. The rider can begin with arrows in his hand and must fire off as many as possible, hitting the three targets as they are in front of him, level with him and behind him. Speed of being able to nock the arrow and accuracy of shooting, as well as remaining in a standing position, in balance, on his horse the entire way.
The Turkish version had three smaller targets, set to be shot from in front, behind and behind. Here you really saw another skill emerge – shooting in the rhythm of the horse and counting strides. The targets are set at a premeasured distance, and the top-class athletes counted strides just like a show jumper would. A stride to draw, a stride to nock, a stride to aim…
The qabaq began with a target suspended high above the track, the first shot being taken with a blunt arrow. The objective is to shoot this one as you are beneath it. In the middle of the target is a ceramic pot which would have been filled with gold. Alas, no one now has a handful or two of spare gold lying around, so these were filled with plastic gold, and the promise of many points if a rider’s arrow shattered the ceramic (which only happened once in this competition). The rider then continues at his gallop to draw and shoot three more arrows at normal targets.
There are so many aspects to love about this sport – the training of the horse; the trust in the horse that he will remain straight and true; the feel for rhythm, balance, counting strides; the biomechanics of a rider being truly independent in his seat; the accuracy and skill of shooting, but largely the whole history and pageantry of the sport, the costumes, the yell of a warrior as he sets off.
The Hungarians seem to have the most structured training. You need to be certified as an able rider. You then need to be certified as an archer on the ground. Finally, you aim for certification as a horseback archer. Am I sold? Well, yes. The last two days in Iran were spent at a training camp, learning about the bows, the tradition of shooting and the movements required on horseback. So, will you see me shooting in the future? I certainly hope so!