Medieval horseback archery was a military skill. Nowadays, it is a sport, but also, if not primarily, an art. The history of horseback archery goes beyond the Middle Ages into antiquity, back to Egyptians shooting arrows from chariots, using quivers that served as models for the modern ‘Egyptian’ quiver used in shooting contests.
In the Middle Ages, archery was used for military and hunting purposes. Horseback archery was a skill mostly associated with the east. Medieval miniatures in western sources do sometimes show mounted archers, but they are either representing the ‘Saracens’ or archers travelling on horseback, who would dismount for battle.
The oriental sources, illuminated manuscripts of which are well represented in the British Library and the French National Library, are different in showing cantering archers, shooting arrows at the enemy.
The east-west dichotomy in terms of horseback archery is still topical. Mounted archery is traditional in Asian countries – Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan, to name but a few, as well as, to add an exception, Hungary. It is part of military games, often practiced in conjunction with other equestrian skills, such as spear throwing or horseback wrestling. Every country has its own format of the competition, rules and styles of shooting and riding, different techniques, equipment and horse breeds are used. In the west, it is often considered a rather exotic art, though numerous associations are doing much to raise public awareness of this sport.
Years ago, I have been asked to do a demonstration at one of medieval reenactment events in Latvia, because I was practicing both riding and target archery. I found the two skills hard, next to impossible to combine. Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop by one of the few practitioners of horseback archery in my part of the world, Katariina Albrecht, who shared the secrets of this art with a very select audience in Latvia. While as a medievalist I remain skeptical of certain generalizations about the history of this art and certain analogies between modern horseback archery and its medieval military analogue(s), I could not but admire the skills and ease of the archer’s performance, as well as her sincerity in instructing the participants in the intricacies of the art. It is something you need to practice constantly, and, at the same time, it is far from being an arcane, esoteric art it may sometimes be presented.
Much of horseback archery is intuitive, requiring good riding habits and good shooting. You can also see why it was – and still is – practiced in the east, where equestrian culture is strong. I would not say that medieval westerners were bad equestrians, but certainly the best archers were not the people who would constantly practice and perfect their riding skills. Nowadays, target archery, with its emphasis on rigid position and unhurried, exact performance is opposite to the fluidity and speed required in horseback archery, and few people have the leisure or means to combine equestrian and archery sports. However, it is truly a beautiful and exciting art, even if today it may have evolved rather far from its practical application in the pre-modern times.
Katariina Albrecht in Iran 2015.