A brief history of horseback archery, by region

The use of archery from chariots revolutionised warfare and hunting around the 2nd millennium BCE in Egypt, the Middle East and India. It is believed to be the precursor of horseback archery. Mounted archery required the selective breeding of larger stronger horses and greater horsemanship facilitated by the development of bronze bits (8th Century BCE).

Central Asia

There is evidence that horses were being domesticated and kept for milk from 4000-3000 BCE. The importance of horses and archery is demonstrated by excavation of horses, arrowheads and later bowcases from burial mounds (8th-5th Centuries BCE). The 13th-16th Centuries CE saw the Mongols’ campaigns extending their empire over a vast area. Their success in battle can be attributed to their training and organisation as well as the speed and manoeuvrability of their mounted archers, who travelled with several fresh mounts each.

Middle East

Hittite warhorse training is recorded on the Kikkuli clay tablets from ~1400 BCE and horseback archery is depicted on bronze belts and horse bits from the 10th-7th centuries BCE.
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal is depicted using horseback archery whilst hunting (7th Century BCE). Inscriptions state that King Darius of the Achaemenid dynasty (5th-3rd Centuries BCE) was “a good horseback rider …. a good archer, on foot or horseback” and Herodotus records that “arrow and horse are the partners of each Persian child”: Persians were required to teach their children archery, horse riding and truthfulness. The Parthians and Sassanids introduced new techniques of holding arrows and drawing the bow to improve shooting speed, accuracy, range and penetrating power. The Arab conquests brought the Middle East into Muslim control from 7th Century. The Seljuk Turks were dominant in the area in the 11th Century and were succeeded by the Ayyubid dynasty of Saladin; the mounted archers of both were involved in battles with the Crusaders for a century.

Western Steppe

The Steppe of Eastern Europe and the area around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea have been the home of a succession of peoples who relied on horseback archery: the Scythians (8th Century BCE), Parthians, Huns, Avars and Magyars; until the Mongols made it the western extent of their vast empire (ending in the 16th Century). The influence of the horsemanship, training, weaponry and tack of these races spread throughout Europe in the development of the medieval knight and cavalry warfare.

India

Archery is described within the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas (1700-1100 BCE). In the Dhanurveda, archery from chariot, elephant, horseback and foot are all discussed. The Indian armies and those that threatened their borders over the millenia (Steppe tribes, Persians, Arabs and Turks) all employed horseback archery. Guru Gobind Singh (late 17th – early 18th Century), the last living Sikh guru, was renowned as an archer; he is depicted using a bow from horseback alongside other riders hunting with firearms, showing the overlap in weaponry at this time.

Asia Minor

In the 6th Century Byzantine cavalry, including mounted archers, were key to the defeat of the Persians at Dara and of the Vandals in North Africa. The Ottoman Turks took over much of Asia Minor during the 14th-15th centuries and their empire was in constant contention with those of the Mongols and Mamluks.

Far East

Horseback archery is depicted on murals in tombs on the Korean peninsula dating from the 1st–7th Centuries CE, both in hunting and in competition. Through the centuries horseback archery was the most celebrated martial skill, with both stationary targets and mogu used to assess officers’ skills and to train for war.
Horseback archery (kisha) with the yumi (long asymmetric bow) was practised by the Japanese military elite. It has continued uninterrupted from the 8th century, when the Takeda school was established, to the present; first as military training for the Samurai and more recently for personal development and focus following the Bushido philosophy and action, “in the way of the Samurai”, still using the 12th century regulations.

North America

Native Americans had used bows for 2 ½ millennia by the time the Spanish introduced horses to the continent in the mid 16th Century. Bison were hunted by mounted archers until white hunters wiped out the herds in 1885.

Rather than being a race that can be characterised geographically, the Mamluks were a warrior class, found in Muslim society between the 9th and 19th Centuries, through Egypt, Syria, Persia and India. “Mamluk” means “owned” in Turkish; these soldiers were originally enslaved men from the Turkic tribes. In time they became a powerful military caste, often holding political and military power and in some cases attaining the rank of sultan, amir (Arabic) or bey (Turkic).

Furūsiyya emanates from the Abbasid and especially Mamluk periods in Islamic history. It was considered the highest form of martial art and training discipline of its time and comprised both equitation and veterinary knowledge as well as core fighting skills with lance, bow, mace and sword. A “faris” was one considered to be a master, not only in the martial arts but also in moral, ethical and spiritual knowledge.

Archery from the back of elephants has existed in parallel to horseback archery for millennia. It is described in India’s ancient Hindu scriptures, at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (636) with elephants brought from the Persian provinces in India, and depicted in the reliefs of the Khmer empire (9-15th century).

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