GB v Netherlands – The BHAA International Series

Over the last weekend in May, the BHAA hosted the Horseback Archers of Holland at the Centre of Horseback Combat in Hemel Hempstead for this year’s installment of the BHAA International Series.  This is an annual event in which the BHAA fields two teams of 4 (a GB team and a GB Development team) in a triangular competition against a team from another country.  After taking home silver and bronze last year against Sweden, the British were aiming to go one better this time.

The Dutch team of 6 (plus two supporters) arrived on Friday and were immediately introduced to British customs such as the traditional traffic jam on the M25 London Orbital motorway on a Bank Holiday Friday. A quiet barbecue and a couple of drinks settled everybody in nicely and we were ready to start on Saturday morning. Of course, no Bank Holiday weekend is complete without rain so the start was delayed to 2pm, at which point we finally got going with the Hungarian event.

I will say at this point that it was a genuine pleasure to host the Dutch team.  Claire Hagen is a dear friend whom Claire and I met when we were all at our first ever international: EOCHA 2010 in Belgium.  She is another (indeed, the first) in the growing group of people in this sport whom I have meet only a few times (two weekends before this one) but with whom I feel that I have been friends for years without interruption.  The others in the team that came this weekend were all people I had not met but were exactly as I expect horseback archers to be, and I can think of few higher compliments to give.

Having said that, and without detracting from it for a moment, I intend for the rest of this post to focus primarily on the British teams, as their performances have made me very proud of what we are achieving here.

The Dutch 6 split the events between them, with a different foursome in each event.  This made group allocation something like a sudoku puzzle with horses but allowed more people to take part, which can only be a good thing.  The 12 people competing in the Hungarian event were in for a bit of a soaking, especially the second group of 6, who had to dismount, so heavy did the hail become at one point.  This and the cold and wind did not make for great shooting but even taking this into account, I don’t think I was the only person to be disappointed by my poor score.  The scores were very close after this first event, with GB just leading GB Dev and then Holland.  Then came the qabaq.  One hit for the Dutch and one for GB gave us, after time points, 6.02 points each for the event: not great but better than the 0 that all three teams managed last year!  GB Development, however, came away with nearly 25 points after two of their number each scored two hits.  Overnight, therefore, the Development side led the whole competition, much to my consternation as team selector, not to mention GB captain.  More positively, having 8 British competitors so close together is a terrific situation and I take it as validation of our active development programme.

On a beautiful sunny Sunday Team GB got it together for the Korean, producing if not their finest shooting ever then certainly their best performance of the weekend and overhauling the Development team and take a lead that was maintained through the Mamluk to give gold to GB, silver to GB Development and bronze to the Netherlands.

A few statistics to ponder from the weekend:
1. We competed in 4 events, 18 runs and 1920m of track each.  Counting the Hungarian as 3 targets per run, there were 52 targets, worth a total of 242 points.  There were also 105 speed points available.
2. Of the 8 British competitors, only 7 points separated 3rd and 8th place. 
3. Over all that competition, 4th and 5th pace were separated by 0.08 points.  One more line cutter, one tenth of a second shaved off a single run, and those places would have been reversed.

These statistics show the strength in depth that GB is building in this sport but they also show the vital importance of fighting for every fraction of a point.  One arrow can make a huge difference, as I learned in Poland when my solitary miss in the Korean cost me a certain 4th place and, had it scored 5 instead of missing, 3rd place.  The same shows here.  Had the 8th placed competitor scored a 5 instead of missing on one run of single shot, he would have finished 3rd overall.  One arrow over the course of all that competition could have changed the individual results that much. 

The other learning point for me has been an illustration of something I have always believed and have witnessed in other sports as well: never give up.  I once coached and played in a lacrosse side that was being utterly crushed after three quarters.  For the last quarter I told the team to throw caution to the wind and everybody try to be a hero.  “Go crazy.  If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big mistake but make it trying to win this game”.  We scored the winning goal with seconds to spare.  At the risk of bragging, I have always been able to play like this, whether as the last man at the crease in cricket or 10-0 down in squash.  Usually I still lose (if I were any good at these sports I wouldn’t need my refusal to give up, would I?) but I fight to the end.  This weekend, with GB in second place overnight and needing to score highly in the Korean, I missed both runs of single shot.  For a few moments all I could think was that I had blown it.  Then I took a few deep breaths and reflected on the fact that those runs are over and gone.  They cannot affect the remaining runs unless I let them. 

My friend Din once explained to me (if I understood his teaching correctly) that one should not be annoyed at where the last arrow went because that was in the control of God.  One should simply shoot the next one as well as one can.  My view, while non-religious, is essentially the same, and I believe shows different paths to a single truth.  My view is that espoused by Jim Hamm in Volume 4 of the Traditional Bowyer’s Bible: you have to believe, indeed you have to know that the next arrow will be perfect.  In training I have scored perfect hits.  I know I can do it.  All the misses are aberrations: my true shooting results in perfect hits.

There’s no way to say this without bragging, but I disregarded those two misses and determined to do it properly for the last 4.  I broke the British record for double shot then went on and broke it for 5 shot as well.  In fact, over those 4 runs I broke the record for the overall Korean 1-2-5 as well.  Never give up.

Of course, had I scored a 3 on either of my single shot runs it would have given me an HA3 score, rather than the HA2 grade I already hold.  Fight for every point and never stop training…

Grunwald Review

Apologies for the sudden cessation of articles half way through Grunwald.  We changed to different accommodation that didn’t have WiFi…

Day 3 consisted of the Polish track, which this year contained something new.  For those who don’t know, the Polish track is a cross-country track, still roped like a regular track but winding and in this case uphill.  It tends to be several hundred metres long (I think about 350-400m this time) and has targets that will generally include at least one jarmaki (downwards at a target lying flat on the ground) and at least one (this time two) shots on the wrong side of the course.  There is also something known as the Grunwald of Battle course.  This is simply an open field with a 3x1m target set back from one edge (maybe 15-20 form the field’s edge, making this the shortest available shot).  The competitor is free to attack the targets as they choose, approaching and retreating (though not riding in circles).  10pts are awarded for hitting the target and 5pts for an arrow that lands in the immediate area around the targets.  This year the courses were merged: you started out in the track and rode along it the wrong way for a few metres, emerging into the Battle course field.  Having attacked the battle targets you go around a post and back into the track for the regular Polish track.


My little Irys struggled on this course, being (like me) built for comfort and the occasional short dash rather than for long fast slogs uphill.  He didn’t give in, though, and with some gentle encouragement (lots of shouts of “dobre” – Polish for “good” and the occasional “yallah” for old times’ sake – Arabic for “hurry up” and what I spent most of Al Faris 2012 shouting at my horse) he kept going to the end both times.

Other people were rather more exciting to watch, and although the event was won by Wojtek Osiecki riding at a brisk but relatively sedate pace, the real spectacle was people like Ali Goorchian riding fast and nocking with unbelievable speed.  There was only one mishap as one of the fast horses disagreed with his rider about the correct direction to take at the end of the track and they ended up agreeing to disagree, with each going his own way.  The rider was taken to hospital as a precaution but is now on the mend and assures me that he can shoot with a cracked rib.  Tough bunch, horseback archers.

The afternoon was taken up with a trip to Malbork, a vast red brick castle that was the stronghold of the Teutonic Knights.  We were lucky to be offered a guided tour that for a student of history like me was fascinating.

That night we had some fun.  One of the Poles apparently used to be “a chemist in the army” and it was announced to us that we would go and do some night shooting “and make big kaboom”.  About a dozen people each taped a mini glowstick to a couple of arrows and we were given a small target on a stick to shoot at from maybe 20m away.  I asked how we would know if we hit and was told “you’ll know”.  One volley of arrows later and night vision became a thing of the past.  The target was knocked down and turned out to have been wired to some kind of flashbang that blinded and deafened the watching archers.  Repeated several times this was definitely worth the two arrows I lost in the process.

The final day was a ground archery competition, involving shooting from various ranges and positions as well as speed shooting.  The crowning event involved running around a pole with your head down for 10s before trying with varying degrees of hilarity to reach your bow and start shooting.  The event was resoundingly won by Serena Lynn, whose shooting has to be seen to be believed.

We followed this up with one more session of archery battle, in which Team GB was narrowly beaten by a Rest of the World team consisting of Serena and Tyler from the US, Timea from Hungary and Emil from Sweden, whose lethally accurate shooting on the run was decisive in the end.

Just like that, it was all over.  This is the downside of these events: suddenly people are leaving and you know that in some cases it will be a year or more before you see them again.  The antidote to this, I have found, is twofold: in the first place this is a sport that is largely run on Facebook and just as you feel that you know people before you ever meet them, equally you do feel that you are not really that far apart, even when you are on the other side of the world.  The second part is that when you do see people again, it feels like only yesterday that you last saw them.  I have many friends with whom I have spent a week or so and then not seen them for over a year, but then you almost start the conversation up where you left off.

For Team GB it was a long drive though some appalling traffic to Warsaw.  Our idea of stopping for food, while ultimately a good one, did lead to the slightly ludicrous situation of trying to explain to the lady at the counter that we wanted sauages (basically miming a sausage. Not like that) and failing to such an epic extent that we were served foot-long pizzas.  Good pizzas, you understand, but in a very not-sausage way.

It was a successful trip for Team GB, who finish this first stage of the Grand Prx on 55 points, 20 behind Poland (unsurprisingly) but 5 ahead of Sweden (very surprisingly).  It was also pretty successful for me personally, especially finishing 5th in the Korean event.  Scoring only 2 points fewer than Ana Sokolska is a huge achievement in anybody’s book, and while I am proud of what I achieved, knowing that had I put the first arrow of my penultimate run in the 5 rather than missing then I would have equalled Michal Piasek’s score (and therefore beaten him and come 3rd because I scored higher with my arrows) is enough to keep me wanting more.  Equally, I have discovered (more accurately I have been shown by Oisin) a way of holding arrows in my bow hand that finally works for me, I expect my Hungarian scores to improve drastically in the coming months, hopefully to the extent that I do not disgrace myself at the Kassai World Cup in July.

A final thought: I would heartily recommend this competition to anybody.  Set on the battlefield of Grunwald (look it up – it’s a very important battle) and supported by the Grunwald Museum (to whom I offer my thanks and my regrets that I was unable to deliver my lecture – maybe next year?), it is steeped in history but is also a week of learning, sharing and having fun, as well as providing the opportunity to see some of the world’s best mounted archers plying their trade.

I would like to extend my thanks to the organisers and helpers of what I think would probably have to rate among the best organised competitions I have ever attended, as well as being tremendous fun.  The Polish Horseback Archery Association is clearly doing things right and I wish them all the best until we next meet.

Oh, one more thing: if you do go to Poland, don’t drink the “herbal moonshine”.  Just say no.




Grunwald Competition Day 2

Just a quick update today, on account of being knackered!  We did the Hungarian course, doing it Kassai style (99m, 9 runs, no zones, shoot any target from anywhere) but without the rotating target.  I was fairly happy with my 65 points, although my forward shot needs a lot of work.  I was getting the quick nocking working very well though.  Then Claire shot the best Hungarian of her life, ending with 74 (8th place overall).  An emphatic personal best 35 from Oisin left Adam with the task of keeping within 40 points of Emil to secure second page for GB.  Adam shot 72, an excellent score that is by far his best shooting that I have seen.  This was well within 40 of Emil, meaning that GB again came second to Poland.
After the competition we had a fascinating lecture from Ali Goorchian about horseback archery in Iran, followed by archery battles using soft-tipped arrows and paintball masks.  In hindsight, shooting Claire twice in one game was probably not my best move…
Tomorrow we have the Polish hunt track, a twisting 300m track with 8 targets in various places, requiring two riding skill as well as good shooting. 
Everything else remains as good as ever, with fine company and the ever-present exchange of ideas.  All 4 British archers are now spring custom made thumbrings, which none of us was brave enough to use in the Hungarian!  I’ll be using mine tomorrow though. 
And so to bed 🙂


Grunwald Competition Day 1

The first event of the European Grand Prix is finished!  In the Korean event the results (with Finland absent) were:
1.  Poland
2. GB
3. Sweden

EDIT: I think I may have confused things in an earlier post. Points are awarded not for first page in Grunwald, first in Sweden etc but at each stage there are points for placing in the Korean, Hungarian etc. So Poland get 100pts (I think) for winning the Korean and then another 100 for winning the Hungarian (which they will!)

The Polish rule for the Korean event go a long way (some would probably say too far) towards removing the a advantage of fast horses.  Whole there are unlimited bonus points for speed (without the IHAA limit at 10m/s), there are bonus points for hitting all the targets on any of the disciplines (double, triple and five shot).  In addition, fake to hit 2 targets on the triple shot or 3 targets on the 5 shot means that you score nothing.  There were lots of very good people scoring no points because they were going too fast to be able to hit enough targets.  On my little Polish horse I didn’t have that problem…

Team GB were consistently good, with no weak link, which had been a fear of mine, not because I thought anybody was likely to do badly but because anybody who did may well feel that they had let the team down.  Nobody did.

After the competition we had a lecture about Polish horseback archery and a tour of the Battle of Grunwald museum.  We then drive to a nearby palace that has been converted to a hotel, where we had a tour of the stables (extreme horsey luxury, right down to the chandeliers) and the palace.  On a slightly surreal note, we we ushered into a small ballroom, asked to sit down and then treated to a piano and tenor recital.  This was extremely civilised and quite high on my list of things I had not expected at a horseback archery competition.

We are now back at the centre about to eat Polish sausage cooked on the open fire, followed by a briefing about tomorrow.  I am being slightly weak and sitting inside, on account of it’s being absolutely freezing outside.

Finally, I am typing with only one finger because my thumb is taken up with my lovely new thumbring, handmade to fit from deer antler.  I’m not brave enough to shoot with it tomorrow but given a bit of practice I think I shall be saying goodbye to tape forever!  Photos will follow later on.  For now I only one thing to say:  sausage time!