“Think of something or someone you’d like to hit,” said Karl Greenwood, equine master of derring-do. Given that the Scottish referendum was approaching, I decided on the SNP. Saving the kingdom from destruction felt like a suitably noble quest for a mounted archer, and my arrow duly flew straight and true into the yellow bull’s eye.
It was the high point of a day learning to shoot arrows from horseback with the Centre of Horseback Combat, based in the 18th-century stables of Gaddesden Place, near Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire. Rare for a place so close to the M25, the view from the tilting field hadn’t changed since the Classical house in the background was built, and if you’d replaced it with a stone castle, the scene would have been straight out of a medieval pageant.
Indeed, in the summer, this unassuming pasture is turned into exactly that by the centre’s sister company, the Stampede Stunt Company, for the Gaddesden Banquet & Joust, with four-course feasts served in long tents that flank the tilting field.
Greenwood and his wife, Zana Cousins-Greenwood, are regulars at country shows and fairs, displaying their astonishing trick-riding skills, standing atop galloping horses or firing arrows at a rate of which Genghis Khan would be proud, and have trained numerous actors for shows such as Game of Thrones. The rest of the time is spent teaching novices like myself vaulting, standing, falling or how to wield a bow and arrow with some semblance of skill, and such is their patient and humorous approach that, by the end of the day, even someone who has never fired an arrow before can find themselves firing three in succession from a cantering horse.
Mounted archery has an ancient history, with its origins in the Steppe regions of Asia. Korea and Japan took the military art and kept up the tradition as a sport; today, the East is still the epicentre of the skill. In recent years, the success of Hungarian Kassia Lajos has led a surge of interest in the ancient art in Europe. In Britain, this secluded corner of Hertfordshire is now the country’s leading centre of the sport.
Tuition for everyone from beginners to advanced archers is held here, plus National Horseback Archery Society competitions. Students have gone on to compete at the World Championships in Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Florida, and even in Jordan, in front of the king. Suitably for such a world-class stage, the well-trained horses, mainly Spanish Andalusians and Friesians, are all handsome — screen presence abounds — and the recursive bows, necessarily shorter than the longbows of foot archers, are objects of beauty in themselves.
My first foray into this illustrious world began on foot, learning to nock an arrow, pull back using the Korean-style thumb draw and firing at archery targets in the old walled garden beside the outdoor school where the company’s trick-riding lessons or rider confidence courses are held. (If you’ve ever had a fall or lost your nerve, this is the place to regain your belief in your ability.)
I wasn’t terribly successful at this part, finding it tricky to nock the arrow quickly without looking, and my eye was definitely not in, but once we had moved onto the horses, the whole thing became a lot more natural. Perhaps it was the rhythm of the horse or the fact that I feel at home in the saddle, or Greenwood’s encouraging suggestion to imagine a threat to the nation as a target, but I was able to nock, draw and fire with a lot more success than on the ground.
The trick is not to think about aiming, but to loose and straightaway look to the next target. I think my one bull’s eye was a fluke, but a respectable number of my arrows hit the targets with impressive power — even in an amateur’s hands, these are genuine weapons.
We were led in walk at first, then in trot, then, when Greenwood deemed we weren’t going to fall off the moment we dropped the reins, we were released to charge up the course alone. The horses know exactly what they’re doing and the run is a sandy track edged by ropes, so there isn’t too much danger of veering sideways, but you do have to keep riding when at speed.
In archery competitions, entrants are disqualified for losing the canter before the end of the 90-yard course, after the third of three targets. If you stop riding in delight at firing your last arrow successfully, the horses will sense your lack of concentration immediately and drop to a trot, so it’s crucial to keep going.
It is an unbelievable rush when your horse leaps into canter and you reach to your belt for your first arrow, notch and release, immediately looking to the next target and reaching for your second arrow in a seamless movement. It may be over in about 14 seconds, but the thrill stays with you.
A half-day’s instruction in horseback archery with the Centre of Horseback Combat on the Gaddesden Estate near Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, costs £99, and a full day is £175. Weekend courses, with camping and barbecue, are £350.
Images courtesy of Octavia Pollock