(Japanese archer practicing the art of Yabusame, mounted archery)
While a game-changing form of warfare, mounted archery has very humble origins. As mentioned in our previous blog, mounted archery was first used by nomadic tribes in the east who depended on horses to travel, maintain herds of livestock, and hunt. What’s interesting about the use of mounted archery is that it wasn’t a tactic developed by powerful city states; this was the nomad’s style of fighting, the style of open fields. Though not starting in powerful kingdoms, mounted archery would literally build empires for those who mastered it.
Mounted archery was developed and almost exclusively used for combat in Asia. We have historical accounts and artifacts showing mounted archery being used from the Near-East in such nations as Persia (modern day Iran) to as far as Japan. We do seem some Europeans utilize horses and archery, but not in the capacity of firing arrows on horseback. In medieval battlefields some archers would ride into battle but then dismount in order to fire their bows. While the Huns of Hungary were famed for their mounted archers, both the people and style were heavily influenced by steppe tribes to the east.
There are several reasons why mounted archery was more suited for nomadic lifestyles and Asian grasslands. For one thing, mounted fighting is best done on open terrain where both horse and archer can use distance to properly execute formations. Firing projectiles in the heavily wooded or mountainous regions of Western Europe would have been ineffective. On top of that, horsemen wouldn’t have been able to maneuver effectively or even in the necessary volume. There’s also the matter of the horses themselves. To maintain a herd of horses used to supply warriors for mounts requires a lot of land in order house and feed them. Nomads with horses would have constantly been on the move following resources, game, and fresh grazing areas to maintain their herds. It was a natural step for some tribes to use their horses and hunting tools to fend off opposing groups.
The most famous mounted archers were the Mongols, an illiterate nomadic people of the Mongolian Steppes who would go on to conquer the largest land empire in history. They did this by fully utilizing their valued horses. For one thing, every Mongol archer would have had several horses to use at his disposal. This was so that they always had fresh mounts ready for combat. The Mongols’ ability to move their army swiftly would lead to them to conquer most of the Middle-East, parts of Eastern Europe, all of China, and Russia. Other famous mounted archers include the ancient Assyrians, Scythians, Arabians, Turks, and the Japanese. Yes, the Samurai were mounted archers!
Before the west came to identify the legendary Samurai warriors with their famous Katana sword, they were originally known for being mounted archers. Their weapon of choice was a modified longbow called the Yumi. While longbows are typically not well made for firing on horseback, the Yumi features a shorter curve for the hand and arrow to be knocked while extending higher past where the archer would draw. This allowed the weapon to be maneuverable around the horse while also delivering a lot of power with its draw size. Using mounted archery not only developed new strategies in battle, but also innovations in the bow, saddle, and horsemanship in general.
Obviously, we aren’t riding horses into battle these days but the influence of mounted archers is still felt to this day. Only 2-300 years ago Native Americans mounted horses which were not even native to the Americas and used them to compete with European settlers. In a short period of time, American Indian horse-archers would prove a formidable force on the westward plains. The bow and arrow then evolved into the rifle, which throughout the Civil War and other engagements was used by the U.S Cavalry. Even when horses were replaced on the battlefield, tanks and other instruments of war would follow similar principles.
Today, mounted archery survives as a sport! Relatively recently, renewed interest in historical archery has led several American and European groups to study and compete in mounted archery events. Of course, places like Mongolia and Japan have kept the time-honored tradition far longer. Many of these events feature all kinds of horse breeds from Mustangs to Arabians. While places to practice the sport can be a little hard to find in the U.S, they are out there, keeping the tradition alive!
(Example of modern mounted archery sport)
While Happy On Hooves doesn’t feature mounted archery, we still pride ourselves on providing the freedom of the ride that first inspired mounted archers to take to the open plains. It’s finally getting warmer out, so don’t wait to book your trail rides with us now!
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