A Break With Tradition?

“Horseback archery is a traditional sport”. That fact is taken for granted by the majority of practitioners. It is recognised by UNESCO as being of cultural importance. We all know that horseback archery was the means by which countless waves of Steppe nomads swept over Asia and Europe, by which the Parthians and Persians fought the Romans and the great Arab conquests were achieved (at least in part). Fewer people worldwide realise that in Japan the tradition of yabusame has been practised continuously for some 800 years. I am grateful to Tanaka-san and to Tim McMillan for opening my eyes to this hidden (to me!) gem of mounted archery.

Recent discussions on Facebook have set me thinking again about the notion of a traditional sport. There are several competing philosophies in the world at the moment. The labels I have attached to them are my own and I make it clear at the outset that I do not believe any to be any better or more important than any other.

    Pure Martial Art

This is exemplified by the hundreds or thousands of practitioners of yabusame in Japan who do not compete abroad, do not compete in the Korean, Hungarian, qabaq, mogu or the other styles that we see in various countries. They simply do their own style, striving for perfection in it and treating the enterprise as an end in itself. I have not mentioned them much in what follows, simply because the pure martial artist is likely to agree, for these purposes, with the next category of person:


This is the view that the ultimate question is “what did our ancestors do?”. There are few sights as impressive as a rider in full historical outfit galloping at full speed whilst loosing handmade wooden arrows from a horn and sinew bow drawing upwards of 100lbs.

    Competitive Sport

Whilst many people in this camp still enjoy and appreciate the fact that this is a traditional sport, for them the guiding principle is the sport. Fibreglass bows of a draw weight no higher than is necessary to send the arrow into the target; carbon or aluminium arrows for perfect consistency and generally functional clothing are preferred.

Of course these are extremes. Many people do not fall entirely within one category. Most fit somewhere in between but these are the three main views that horseback archery needs to cater for.

There are several areas where a balance needs to be drawn. One of the most obvious is equipment. I am thinking particularly of arrows, quivers and bows.


This can be simply stated: our ancestors did not have aluminium or carbon arrows. The reenactment view would therefore be that we should be using wood, bamboo or reed arrows. The sportsman would say that carbon and aluminium can be made straighter, lighter and more consistent than the traditional materials and so he would want to use them. In practice, most international competitions allow any arrow material, even if the rules technically state otherwise (in Sokcho in 2010 the rules technically stated that arrows must be bamboo. I therefore claim gold and silver on behalf of GB as I’m pretty sure we were the only ones using bamboo…)


At the World Championships in 2010 several Iranian competitors used “arm quivers”. These ingenious inventions consisted of clips attached to the armguard, into which the arrows were inserted. This made for vey fast reloading. Of course, such “quivers” are not historical. The martial artist and the reenactor would disapprove, even if they recognised the genius of the invention. The sportsman would applaud the innovation and adopt it if
they wanted to.


This has been the topic of recent discussion on Facebook. Traditional horsebows do not have any form of arrow rest. They certainly do not have a cut out arrow shelf such as is found on more recent bows. The yumi, of course, has its unique length and asymmetry. It has no rest and no shelf. No horsebow, as far as I am aware, had a handle that was shaped to fit the hand in the manner of modern pistol grips. At present these innovations (pistol grips, shelves and rests) are banned under most competition rules. The reenactors would say that this is quite right. More and more sportsmen are saying that we should open our doors to a greater variety of bow designs.

Various arguments are put forward:

“Allowing other types of bow will encourage newcomers to the sport who are archers already, because they will not need to get a new bow”. This may be a good argument as far as it goes but to me it seems that it does not apply at the upper levels of the sport. By the time you are competing in international events you really ought to be able to buy a bow specifically for horseback archery.

“We don’t really know that our ancestors didn’t use these designs”. This seems to me to be a pretty poor argument, especially in relation to cut out shelves. We have lots of evidence from texts, art and archaeology, none of which suggests these design aspects. We know that handles tended to be relatively narrow. This makes it easier for the arrow to flex around the bow and means that a cut out would not be feasible (or as necessary). Admittedly a stuck on rest or a built up grip are possible. I suspect that the latter, at least, was probably used by some mounted archers. Nonetheless the burden seems to me to lie on those who say that such things are or may be historical to prove it.

“Our ancestors would have used them if they had the technology”. I have used this argument myself. I was rightly but delicately put right by a friend who pointed out that they would also have used firearms, which is no reason for us to turn our sport into mounted pistol shooting…

There is one more argument that is put forward. In my opinion it is the strongest but it is also possible the most controversial:

“We have already abandoned tradition”. It can be pointed out that we allow fibreglass bows, dacron or kevlar strings, plastic nocks on aluminium or carbon arrows with machined points, modern horse tack and personal clothing etc. We ride down a track that has been roped off and shoot at targets that are generally much closer than the enemy would have been for our ancestors. Surely, the argument goes, we have abandoned tradition already and allowing new bow designs would not take that abandonment significantly further.

It is difficult to think of a suitable answer to this point. To the pure reenactor the solution is to ban the other innovations. To the pure sportsman the solution may well be to allow all bow styles, albeit maybe creating different classes for different bow styles, as is done in regular archery. The problem only really arises for those like me who are sportsmen with a desire to preserve the tradition to some extent. Since that describes me rather well, let’s look at some of the counter arguments. (I should perhaps add at this stage that I hate the idea of different classes for different bow styles in mounted archery. At the moment men and women compete against each other using all different varieties of bow. Everybody is in the same class with no distinctions. Long may it remain so.)

It’s the look of the thing.
Carbon arrows do not look so very different from wooden arrows. You can’t tell, at a distance, whether a string is made of ancient or modern material. You could easily spot a modern bow though.
This argument does not stand up. You cannot spot, from any distance, whether somebody’s grip is a plain traditional one or a shaped pistol grip. You might be able to spot a cut out shelf but frankly if you can spot a small rest stuck on the side of a bow then you can probably tell whether the arrow is carbon or wood.
In addition, we allow bows to be made of modern materials that look modern. More than one of the Iranian team uses a bow with the word “Persian” printed in large letters down the upper limb and nobody objects to this. It looks good and advertises who they are. Clearly, then, looking ancient is not everything.

A variation on this argument is that whilst materials can vary, the design and form should be kept the same as the historical bows. While stronger than the previous version, this argument still suffers from a lack of consistency. We allow personal dress and horse tack that is not of traditional shape. We allow quivers that hold just the right number of arrows and hold them separate for easy drawing. How many ancient warriors rode to battle with only 6 arrows?
Besides which, unless you rely on the “it’s the look of the thing” approach with all its difficulties then it is difficult to see why the shape of the bow should be protected more than the materials.

They give an unfair advantage.
If everybody is allowed to use these modern designs then there is no unfairness. The advantage only arises if some people stick to using more traditionally shaped designs. That, however, is their decision. Until now I have resisted using carbon arrows out of a desire to remain more traditional. Undoubtedly my arrows were heavier than carbons and less well matched. This put me at a disadvantage but not an unfair one since I was free to go carbon. I know more than one other person, traditionalist at heart, who have abandoned traditional wooden arrows for the sake of carbon’s additional performance. I think we all felt a little sad but ultimately we want to compete.

    What Do I Think?

My opinion on this matter has changed recently and I daresay it will change further. I would love to see everybody using traditional equipment. That is unlikely to happen. That being the case I will modernise to keep up. My arrows are now carbon with plastic nocks and small silicone dots to help align the arrows in my hand. My bow has a fibreglass core and a synthetic string.

I would like to see bows remaining of traditional form, with no shelves or rests. This is largely an emotional response that I admit I cannot justify with strict logic. I have my doubts about the efficacy of rests and shelves on horseback but if somebody wants to try them then I believe they should be allowed. I just hope that nobody does.

4 thoughts on “A Break With Tradition?

  1. Excuse the pun or mixed metaphors: “horses for courses” & my own much used favourite “one size does not fit all”.
    ….I like & support the idea of using all traditional materials, equipment, styles etc. but there is a danger of excluding people from taking it up if it’s constrained too much – especially in a sport/pastime (archery in the large not just horse archery) that is not exactly mainstream or highly visible.
    I started in archery by attending a shoot that only allowed English longbows – in smallish catchment area.
    The organiser/owner used to bemoan the lack of attendees but continued to exclude other bow styles. I myself wanted to try other styles, but this was frowned upon.
    I started a new & separate club (!) that allowed most styles. It drew in people of varying levels of exposure and/or experience & equipment styles (excluding compounds & crossbows).
    The experienced were those who typically shot Olympic recurve (i.e. predominantly t/d recurve with sights).
    We now have 35 members of which 2 shoot only Olympic style.
    Most have either converted to barebow recurve and or shoot longbows & flatbows too.
    We encourage & try to offer opportunities to shoot all equipment styles without getting too hung up on details – but we do advise those who want to shoot competitively (or with other clubs)of what the rules/expectations of the various governing bodies are.
    There can be a lot of “anal rentention” out there – we try to avoid it.
    Out of 35 members: 1 attends GNAS (freestyle recurve) shoots, 4 attend NFAS & NFF field shoots, 2 attend BLBS shoots & 4 are about to try IFAA/SFAA field shoots.
    (the actual number of distinct archers in these numbers is 5 – we overlap!)
    Funny how the numbers work out in accordance with “pareto”: 7/35 =20%.
    So 80% are happy to take part.
    Begs the question: is archery a sport or a pastime? I’ll save that answer for another time/elsewhere.

    • Interesting insights, thanks. The major difference is that in horseback archery we only have one category. Olympic recurves would be competing against ELBs and horsebows etc. The option of introducing different bow categories would, I suspect, be strongly opposed. One thing about this sport is that everybody competes with everybody else.

      By way of illustration, the Japanese generally compete using the yumi, a 7′ asymmetric longbow with a draw weight of 20-25lb. They will compete against people with 52-54″ Saluki recurved horsebows. Frankly the yumi is a disadvantage but they persist because it is their tradition (and several Westerners are interested in learning, quite apart from one or two who already practise it). If the olympic recurve were to be allowed then it would certainly be interesting to see who adopted it and who did not!

  2. Dan, I think you have articulated a big dilemma in mounted archery. No easy answers. If the sport is to go “global” and perhaps be an Olympic event, many rules and compromises will have to be made, and not necessarily for the benefit of the martial art.

    You mentioned the target distance regards to warfare, I do think mounted archery was used in hunting, and while I’m no expert in Plains Indians archery (or anything!), art work depicts the riders pretty doggone close to their prey. But maybe that is artist licence. “Primitive” archery was about up close and personal. Your family is hungry–you aren’t going to pace off the ‘target’.

    Having no Olympic aspirations myself, I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, because it is all good.

    Our ancestors were resourceful. The reason horseback archery is antiquated is because those resourceful ancestors invented guns, etc. The successful ones embraced them. So we honor our history, but we don’t limit ourselves. After all, we are discussing this on computers, not smoke signals!

    Thanks for all your hard work, Dan. Sorry I didn’t up to Oregon to meet you in person =—>

    • Excellent point about the hunting, Anne. I should have mentioned it myself, really. It’s an argument I’ve previously used about draw weights: it’s all very well saying that 50lbs won’t penetrate armour but it’ll penetrate a deer just fine. Likewise it’ll penetrate an unarmoured man if you are a Steppe nomad or Native American raiding another’s village rather than riding against armoured soldiers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s