Preparing the Archery Horse
Preparation Step 1: Desensitisation to the Bow
Preparing the horse for horsearchery means, effectively, two additional preparations beyond any general schooling for riding. The most obvious one is preparing the horse to remain brave and feel safe while the archer shoots serial arrows in rapid succession from his back. This process is most commonly reffered to as “desensitization to the bow”. The second preparation deals with the essential element of dropping the reins while the bow is shot. This is described later, but the trainer must be aware that this information must be imparted to the horse fully prior to his being ready for full fledged arrow shooting on the track.
Few horses accept archery activity from their rider naturally from the beginning, even horses well-trained in other disciplines. One could say that even the so-called bomb-proof horse must generally be trained to be horsearchery prepared. Some horses will require much more preparation in his regard than others. Though this process is often described as desensitizing the horse to the array of experiences it might encounter during its performance as an archery horse, it may be more accurate if one thinks of it as training the horse to feel confident and perform with trust during the archery experience. It is unlikely the well trained horse is actually becoming less sensitive. Rather the horse is learning there is no need to respond with fear while arrows are being shot.
Because horses experience their environment differently depending on whether they are standing, walking, trotting, or cantering, this training must be performed independently with the horse for all of these four psychological states of activity. One should understand further that the horse experiences differently again depending on whether a rider is on their back, and preparation should take this into account also.
While an obvious goal is having a horse that is safe and confident during a competition environment for its rider to shoot at a canter, there are a multitude of practices that are helpful and usually required to reach this level. What these practices consist of exactly is open to an immense amount of flexibility and creativity on the part of the trainer.
Many aspects of horse archery are naturally foreign to the horse: the clickitty-clack of loading an arrow quickly, the creak of drawing a bow, the swish of the arrow releasing, the sight of an arrow flying away, the body shifts of the rider as she adjusts balance throughout the shooting process, all of these events are prone in the beginning to frighten the horse. Likewise the unplanned and unpredictable experiences such as a bow sticking the horse by mistake, an arrow fumbled while being drawn, the snap of a dry-fired bow, or the unexpected encounter of a dropped arrow lying in the track can lead to an unfavorable response from the horse. Therefore we must prepare to add the expected experiences and prepare to add the unexpected experiences to the repertoire of expectations in our archery horses.
Training the horse for horsearchery can happen in parallel with or after foundational ground training and schooling for riding. In the Kassai School of Horsearchery, training begins for new horses in their third year, generally with horses that have never been handled previously. As soon as horses are trained to be led with a halter, they begin a process of daily training for 3-4 hours per day for six months to one year to reach the stage where arrows are shot off their back at a canter. The early stages of this process involve common ground work as in preparations typical of natural horsemanship for riding, and special ground work centering around a pattern of ground tying the horses, always 2 at a time, and subjecting the them to extremely diverse and increasing intensities of spooky distractions. These range from ball rolling and tossing (many sizes), to crop, stick, and arrow air-whipping around the horses, to large flags of various materials being waved around and high over head, to drum beating and eventually arrow shooting. The arrow shooting is started as light string plucking and eventually reaches the stage of shooting from all directions around the horse, to shooting while touching the horse, to shooting from on top of the horse. All of these distractions are repeated in increasing intensity with the goal of keeping the horse at a threshold of almost breaking their stance and exiting their standing position. In the event the trainer overestimates this intensity and the horse breaks, the activity is paused and the horse is brought back to the exact same position. The activity is recommenced at a lesser intensity.
When the horse feels completely safe with arrows being shot beside him, the trainer will mount the horse and introduce shooting arrows from his back at a stance. When this stage is mastered by the horse, the trainer will introduce shooting from a walk, first on the ground beside the horse and then while mounted. This two step pattern is repeated for trotting, and eventually for cantering. This process is approached very slowly and each stage is mastered over the course of several training sessions before each next stage is approached. Even the intensity of arrow shooting must be conservatively calibrated during this process as it is a different experience for the horse to have a few arrows passively flung here and there compared to arrows aggressively being shot every few seconds in rapid fire.
Preparation Step 2: Developing the Horse’s Reinless Riding Confidence in Preparing for Archery in the Track
Prior to shooting from the horses back in the training development, the essential aspect of ultimately having to let go of the reins while the bow is being shot must be addressed in the horse’s preparations. Ideally, the horse will be schooled to the point of responding well to directional commands based on leg cues, balance shifts, and voice commands. However, equally or perhaps more important is to achieve a capacity for the horse to remain confident with a rider while going forward with zero rein tension. While many horsearchery competition styles happen within the confines of a roped track, even well-schooled horses must learn to stay in the track, and to stay at canter in the track. In the case of official Kassai competition tracks, defined not by ropes but by earth mounds, many horses will at first choose to leave the track when the rider drops the reins. This is generally because of the horses’ emotional dependence on the reins in their historic rider relationship. Let loose, many horses will initially seek a herdmate, a familiar barn stall, or a pasture paddock, gradually or at haste, in search of emotional comfort no longer found in the familiar rein. Therefore, it is an additional preparation that the horses are shown it to be normal and safe to carry the rider without rein tension—and eventually that it is ok to do so whilst arrows are being shot.
The training to develop confidence in the horse for reinless riding is different from (and a precursor to) training that will result in full fledged reinless riding capacity, this due to the horse archery track. A horse well trained to be ridden without reins is not a requirement for successful participation in most styles of competition, because the track functions to guide the horse during the shooting session. The value of a highly developed reinless control option becomes apparent in the context of the less predictable Polish or x-country type track where the horse must face obstacles and be repeatedly directed and re-directed through the shooting sequence. Time not requiring the rider to have a hand on the reins is added time that hand can be loading arrows and drawing the string.
The education for full reinless riding capacity is dealt with widely outside of horse archery training. Here we will focus on a simple training sequence for imparting the first level requirements, those for a horse to be confidently ridden in the horse archery track with rested reins while shooting. This process still has the reins available for stopping at the end of the track, and for guiding the horse back and waiting at the beginning of the track for their next turn, while the archer has one hand available for horse communication.
The process can start in the arena or in a track, by gradually over many training sessions allowing the horse more and more rein (less and less tension). This can progress to short few-second periods of relinquishing tension, allowing the horse to gradually build confidence they are safe with rider connected through rein or not, and progress further to longer and longer periods. This sequence must happen separately through walk, trot, and canter. Eventually this process must be taken to the horse archery track, and always started without the bow, to allow for a strict education that the idea is to ride the length of the track with never a lateral exit. Any attempt for the horse to leave the track must be quickly thwarted by a fast return to the rein by the rider. Failing this by allowing the horse to leave the track, the education time is extended, and the potential for it to happen later while shooting arrows increased. Entering and exiting the track in training should always happen where it will in competition. There should always be a pause before and after beginning a run in the track. This is to reduce horse anticipation before a run and, more importantly, to prevent the dangerous development of automatic horse self-exits at the end of the track while the rider may still be occupied with the bow. So practice and real runs should start with a pause (as during a competition when each rider must wait their turn) and then end with a pause after stopping, prior to exiting the track.
After several successful training experiences, the bow can be taken to the track training, the desensitisation of which should be completed in advance. Now begins the final integration of the horse learning to feel safe without rein support and whilst its rider shoots the arrows. As in all training, the process should be gradual and structured according to a lesson plan, such that the ideas for faster and easier progression do not thwart an otherwise solid education process.
One additional note for consideration in this process related to herd-bonded horses and horses not accustomed to being around new horses. These “natural herd animals” can be especially difficult to control in reinless moments as their focus may be far less devoted to the rider. Success in these contexts requires extra-careful consideration and for-planning. A friend horse waiting at the end of the track and good separations between unfamiliar horses are two examples of setting up for a successful experience.