Back home: learning the lessons of Al Faris

Leaving Jordan, I determined that I did not want to do that badly again. I’ve made a few mid-year resolutions:

1. Practise more. I have always coached Claire in her shooting but have generally not shot very much. In particular I don’t shoot in the house. Claire trains by putting a boss on the kitchen table and standing at the other end of the kitchen. It’s only 6yds or so but good for technique. I’ve not done it because my bow would shoot straight through the target and damage the wall. I now use Claire’s bow. It’s the wrong draw weight but it does at least let me work on technique. I also go to the woods when I can, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes on the way to work.

2. Carbon arrows. The Hungarian event involves shots of up to 45yds. Whilst my bamboo arrows are perfectly capable of shooting that far, carbon is lighter, faster and more uniform. This makes aiming easier as you get a straighter arrow flight and don’t need to estimate the arc of the arrow as much. I’ve always balked at carbon arrows from a traditional bow but after a discussion with a friend from Al Faris, I agreed with him that the sport is moving on and it’s time to take advantage of the best materials. I am comforted by the notion that the horseback archers of history would almost certainly have used carbon if it had been available. To that extent it represents the evolution of the sport rather than taking it in a whole new direction.

3. New bow. I tried a Saluki in Jordan. Fell in love. I’ve also been in contact with a top British bowyer to see about getting a bow made. They made my flatbow, which is a fabulous piece of kit. As much as I enjoy shooting my Grozer Turkish bow, it doesn’t compare with these top level weapons for pure speed and stability, which are essential attributes.

4. Holding the arrows. I’ve been using the Ottoman technique of holding the arrows in the draw hand for a while and can do it quite quickly with 3 arrows. I’m getting there with 4. Having seen a video of Lukas Novotny holding them in the bow hand but still using thumb draw, I’m experimenting with a way of doing this. If I can hold 2 Ottoman style and 3 against the bow (with one already nocked) then I’ll be able to shoot 6 arrows fairly swiftly, which would be a massive improvement for my Hungarian style.

5. The Sassanid draw. This involves placing the arrow on the same side of the bow as for thumb draw but pulling with the fingers. Rather than using all 3 fingers, however, you pull with the middle and ring fingers while the index finger holds the arrow against the bow to counter the effect of twisting the string (this is a very light hold – the aim is not to twist the string). Early experiments led to nice close groups but a marked deflection to the right. I’ve now overcome this by relaxing the bow wrist at release, almost snapping it out of the way of the arrow. The technique may or may not result in significant gains in nocking speed and/or accuracy. I’m enjoying it for now and will be trying it from horseback next week. We shall see what we shall see…

Perhaps the greatest change has been mental. I’m a great believer in visualisation as a training method (when you only get to a horse every month or so you kinda have to rely on visualisation!). I’m spending more time thinking and writing about horseback archery. I’m watching it on youtube and DVD. I’ve dug out my archery instructional books and DVDs. I have made myself a promise: if I’m going to represent my country at this sport then I’m going to do it properly and I will never again have to talk about a competition by saying that I had a brilliant week but performed dreadfully because of underpreparation and lack of focus.

Al Faris: a final review

Two weeks have passed since I came home from Al Faris and by popular request I am going to write something a bit more like a narrative account of the competition, together with a few observations and one or two pointers for future competitors. It is, of course, largely based on my own experiences, but I shall incorporate views that others have expressed.

At the risk of being overly materialistic, the first thing to note is that Al Faris is a free event, being funded by the Public Security Directorate of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. From the moment you land in Amman, any expenditure you incur is optional. You are also looked after fantastically at all stages.
Competitors are met at the airport by police officers and taken to a car that is waiting to drive them to the hotel. Entry to Jordan requires an entry visa which you pay for at the airport (I think it was about 20JD – see below).
Having mentioned the visa, let me say a few words about money. The currency is the Jordanian dinar, abbreviated to JD. At current exchange rates, a dinar is equal to £0.91, $1.41 or 1.13euros. I worked on the basis that a dinar is the same as a pound, since that was the hotel’s exchange rate.
The locals often refer to dinars in the abbreviated form “JD”. In the local accent this can sound like “jiddy” or “jirry”. If somebody gives you a price in “jiddy”, they mean dinars.

The hotel we stayed at was the Regency Palace. This is not the same as the one last year and I don’t know whether future years will continue to move. It was, all told, very nice. The rooms were comfortable and here was a good variety of food, which was tasty and unlimited. Personally I think it could have been improved by some kimchi but I think that about most food… The hotel also had a pool. I have said enough about the pool!
Below the hotel was Trader Vic’s bar. This is one the world’s more surreal places. It has a very colonial Africa feel to it when you first walk in, at least until you notice that among the items hanging from the ceiling include a didgeridoo. The drinks include a fairly comprehensive cocktail list and local Jordanian wine. I didn’t try it but I’m told it’s pretty good.
We spent most of our time sat in a lovely little secluded area just outside the bar. Inside the bar, once you get to about 9pm, you can’t move for the salsa dancing that happens every night. Some of the music is what you would expect from a salsa band. Some is not, and the memory of dozens of Jordanians sashaying (very well, I should say) to a salsa version of Stand By Your Man will bring a smile to my face in moments of boredom for years to come.

As Susan says, enough about the bar. You want to know about the riding. The first two days are training. Those who had arrived by midnight on Sunday were taken to the meidan at 0800 Monday morning. The remainder were brought along for lunch and afternoon ground archery. The groups were then reversed the following day. This means that everyone gets one morning of riding and one lie-in.
People who attended the first Al Faris event had told me that the horses would all be fast. This was not the case this year. Some were very fast, some were medium and some were slow. I had asked for a slow horse and got one. As far as I am aware, nobody was saddled (no pun intended)(well maybe a little pun intended) with a horse that they did not feel comfortable with.
The afternoons of the two training days were splendid examples of the spirit that goes with international mounted archery. A few targets had been set up and everybody was just practising their archery, but there was a lot of mutual assistance and discussion of different techniques. Mikami-san’s tuition on how to shoot the yumi (Japanese longbow) was particularly sought-after, as was the opportunity to shoot Lukas Novotny’s bows. For those who don’t know, Lukas is the man behind Saluki bows, the last word in archery porn…
One other useful thing about the training was the opportunity to practise with the swords that would be used in the Jordanian event. Training on foot for swinging a sword forward and stabbing a target on the move led to some pretty hilarious sights as people jogged about the place, occasionally jabbing a sword at a nearby plastic disc.

The day of competition arrived with all the splendour you expect. Fabulous costumes, a troop of lancers, the flag parade and a band of pipes and drums made for a great opening ceremony, even if the bagpipes did leave me with the uneasy feeling that maybe this patch of desert was actually in Scotland…
The first two days of competition were the elimination round. Split into groups, everyone took part in two events one day and one event the other day. I’ve written already about the different styles and rules that were introduced, so I shan’t repeat myself here.
At the end of the two days the field of 43 was narrowed down to 16. it was not quite as straightforward as the top 16, however. The rules state that only two from each nation may go into the final. While this rule is good for ensuring a good mix in the final, you can’t help feeling sorry for Marton Szmrecsanyi, who came 7th but still didn’t qualify, having been beaten by Kassai Lajos and Matyas Ruszak, both also from Hungary. Matters were also complicated by the fact that Lukas Novotny, who came second in the elimination round, was unable to stay for the final.
The top three in the elimination round were Mihai Cozmei in first place, Lukas Novotny in second and Kassai Lajos in third. This came as something of a surprise: Lajos quite literally wrote the book on horseback archery. Without him the sport would not exist in anything like its present form. He had been the clear winner in the Hungarian style (as you might expect, since he designed it) but lost ground in the Korean and Oriental styles. Much of the conversation that night around the dinner table and in the bar revolved around who would win overall come the final. With Lukas gone, the general consensus was that this was a two-horse race between Lajos and Mihai. Most people (me included) backed Mihai, who had looked well-nigh unbeatable.
After the elimination round there was a day of tourism. The main party took a trip to Jerash, a ruined Roman city, and Ajloun, a hilltop castle built by a nephew of Saladin and used to defend the area against Mongol invaders. This was a lovely restful day and a chance to pick up some souvenirs to take home.

Saturday came and with it the final day of competition. Each event was halved, so competitors took one run at each phase of the Korean event, three runs of Hungarian, two qabaq and one Jordanian.
Unfortunately for the competition, Mihai had an off day. Everybody has them (I had two in a row, which is my excuse for finishing 39th). Mihai finished in 8th place.
Kassai Lajos did pretty much everything right throughout the final. By this stage he had given up on the Jordanian style, having missed with all three goes in qualifying. Having shot his arrow, he swept the sword forward and rode magnificently past, saluting the judges as he went. It came as no surprise that he won the Korean and Hungarian styles, as well as the overall title. The Oriental style was won by Daniel Griffin from South Africa, who didn’t miss with the sword throughout the tournament and excelled himself in the qabaq as well. He finished in fourth place overall, behind Lajos, Hsam Msim Feath of Jordan (whose performance delighted the very vocal and patriotic crowd) and Matyas Ruszak, who was perhaps unfortunate to finish a mere 0.87 points behind (99.59 to 100.46).
Certificates and prizes were awarded by a Prince Hashim bin Al Hussein (HM King Abdullah’s younger brother). Then came the photos. Everybody wanted to be photographed with everybody else, or so it seemed at times. This isn’t just competitors having their photos taken with each other: the crowd were coming out and having their photos taken with us. Of course, some were more popular than others. I shan’t mention names, but the several stunning ladies in our number were much sought after, as were the Jordanian competitors, the Chinese, Japanese and Malaysians (all of whom had fabulous outfits as well as great character) and, among those who know the sport, Kassai himself.

So what can be taken away from Al Faris? Sand, primarily. I left my arrow tube out in the sandstorm that raged just before lunch on day two and when I returned home I discovered about two inches of sand in there.
Less prosaically, I have taken away some great memories, some great photos, some great friends and a renewed love for this sport, as well as a determination to improve at it. This has been reaffirmed recently during a conversation with one of my new friends, in which we agreed that we feel the need to treat it more as a sport, work to improve our performances and return next year as better horse archers than we were this year.
I am going to leave the last words to the man who started it all off. Before I do, I want to mention the one photo that I wanted to get but didn’t spot. Somebody else did and I’m going to try to get hold of it. It simply showed three men sitting together: Grand Master Kim Yong-Sup (chairman of the World Horseback Archery Federation), Kassia Lajos and Abdul Majid, one of the main organisers of this event and of the European Open Championship of Horseback Archery (EOCHA). These three men are at the forefront of the way the sport is going. They are not alone but to me that photo represents the hope that the various splintered groupings in world horseback archery may come together, or at least bury their differences and work together.
Some days after I got home I received an email, along with the other competitors, from Kassai Lajos. I shall not quote it in full but I hope that he will not mind if I reproduce a short passage from near the end:
For the unbroken development of horseback archery openness is required. To get to know the techniques, personality, culture of the others better. At the present time the best example for this in the world is the programme in Jordan…Al Faris is the program where it is more important for everyone to get to know and help the other than their scored points.
I could not agree more.