Reviving Ancient Horse Riding Skills
7 Burgeoning Horse Sports That Stoke Riders’ Passions
By Tania Millen
Horsemen and women around the world are enjoying horses in more unique ways than ever, especially here in Canada. From mounted archery to combat and tent pegging, cowboy mounted shooting to working equitation, and Indian relay racing to skijoring, there are challenging horse sports for everyone. Many of the seven sports described are relatively new, but the skills these sports require originated hundreds of years ago when good horsemanship meant staying alive during battle. So, if you’re looking for fresh ways to horse around or watch thrilling horseback action, check out these sports. You just might find a new passion.
Mounted archery combines high speed horsemanship with accurate bow and arrow skills. Although bows and arrows were first invented over 10,000 years ago, mounted archery only appeared in horse cultures about 3,000 years ago. The speed and stealth of skilled horseback archers were important for survival and defence, dramatically altering the success of hunting and warring parties.
Steph Laversin helps riders learn mounted archery at Fraser Valley Mounted Combat in Aldergrove, BC. “It’s just crazy fun and you look really badass!” she says.
But once firearms were invented in the 16th century, archery became obsolete in much of the world. North America was an exception, and Indigenous horseback archers hunted and defended their lands into the 19th century.
In the last 20 years, long-forgotten horseback archery skills have been revived and the sport of mounted archery has been created. It entails shooting arrows from horseback at set targets, and is judged on speed and accuracy. The first Horseback Archery World Championships was held in Hungary in 2018, and in 2019, the newly formed Canadian Federation of Mounted Archery is hosting several spectator-friendly clinics and events.
Steph Laversin operates Fraser Valley Mounted Combat in Aldergrove, BC and helps riders learn mounted archery in partnership with Robert Borsos, one of Canada’s few international competitors. Laversin finds that people come to the sport for different reasons. She says, “Some people… are basically living out their fantasy of shooting arrows off horses. I’ve heard, ‘I’ve always dreamed of doing this,’ countless times. But other people are horse owners looking for new activities to do with their horse. Maybe they bow-hunted or played with bows when they were kids, and then they suddenly realize, ‘Hey, I can do this on my horse!’”
Photo: Wikimedia/Kamil Grzebyta
Laversin says, “It’s just crazy fun and you look really badass!”
So, if you’re keen to shoot arrows off horses, go for it. It’s definitely a blast. But if not, consider challenging someone to a duel.
Mounted combat sports combine historical knowledge with swordplay and jousting, reviving skills of yesteryear when horses were used in war, and honour was won with lance and sword.
Swords were first invented over 5,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that they were regularly wielded by horseback warriors. By the 14th century, horses and riders wore armour, and it’s the mounted combat skills of this era which are usually replicated today.
Jennifer Landels teaches swordplay on horseback at Cornwall Ridge Farm in Langley, BC. Photo: Jennifer Landels
Photo: Prairie Rose Photography
Jennifer Landels teaches swordplay on horseback at Cornwall Ridge Farm in Langley, BC, in conjunction with Academie Duello. Her school focusses on medieval swordplay based on 14th century Italian manuscripts, and her school has a formalized curriculum for riding, horsemanship, and weaponry skills.
Landels says participants come from a variety of backgrounds. “Some are martial artists who want to take their skills to horseback, while others are experienced riders who want to do something new with their horses. As far as hobbies go, sword-fighting on horseback is super cool!”
She admits that riders may be concerned about hitting someone with a sword, but says “We use nylon swords… and start with thorough training from the ground before we let people use simulated weapons from horseback.”
Like-minded folk in Europe are also interpreting manuscripts for modern riders to use. But horseback swordplay is in its infancy as a sport, and unlike jousting, there’s no international governing body.
Jousting is based on the use of lances by cavalry during battle. It involves two heavily armoured horsemen riding toward each other with blunt poles, or lances, trying to break the tip of the lance on their opponent, or knock the opponent off their horse. It was popular with the European upper class from the 13th to 17th centuries, and the term “knight” dates from the 13th century. Chivalry, and the romanticized ideal of proving oneself through noble exploits such as non-lethal jousting tournaments, subsequently developed in the 14th century.
A jousting re-enactment depicts traditionally-armoured riders and horses, riding toward each other. Photo: Dreamstime/Pripir
Photo: Wikipedia/David Ball
In the 15th and 16th centuries, specialized riding armour was developed, plus head armour for horses and ornamental clothes depicting riders’ heraldry. However, the death of King Henry II in 1559 from wounds acquired during a jousting tournament led to the end of jousting for sport.
But in the past 50 years, interest in jousting has revived worldwide and there have been calls for the sport’s inclusion in future Olympic Games. Unfortunately, there are no Canadian jousting organizations. However, jousting is taught at Landels’ Cornwall Ridge Farm, and the Alberta-based Society of Tilt and Lance Cavalry jousting troupe does public displays in BC and Alberta.
A jousting knights bas-relief sculpture at the medieval Malbork castle in Pomerania region of Poland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Canstock/Tupungato
While mounted combat sports remain relatively unknown, the sport of tent pegging - which has some similarities to mounted combat - is slightly more prevalent.
Wielding Swords at the Gallop
Tent pegging is an obscure sport recognized by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), which involves leaning off the side of a galloping horse and stabbing pieces of wood – pegs – which are sticking out of the ground, with a lance or sword. The rider who stabs their pegs in the fastest time, wins.
Although the sport’s origins are fuzzy, tent pegging was undoubtedly created to train military riders in the use of edged weapons (i.e., swords) while mounted. Today, riders are often introduced to the sport through military service, and it’s popular with polo players and mounted games riders, too.
Akaash Maharaj, Canada’s 2008 gold medal-winning tent pegging rider, describes the sport as exhilarating and intoxicating. Photo: International Tent Pegging Federation
Canada’s 2008 gold medal-winning tent pegging rider, Akaash Maharaj, describes the sport as “…galloping hell-for-leather across open country thrusting and slashing swords, sabres, and lances at improbable angles, always one tumble away from grotesque self-destruction.” He says tent pegging “…is exhilarating and intoxicating… The first time I galloped with a sword in my hand, I knew that this was my sport.”
Maharaj has now retired from competition, but he encourages riders to take up the sport. Although there are no formal tent pegging organizations in Canada, some local mounted games groups enjoy the sport. Plus a few Canadian cavalry regiments practice tent pegging, and some units are open to local riders as well as armed forces personnel. The International Tent Pegging Federation in Oman organizes international tent pegging tournaments.
So, if galloping with swords is for you, check out tent pegging, and if not, consider channeling your inner cowboy for some explosive fun.
The Cowboy Way
Cowboy mounted shooting revives the cowboy culture of the late 1800s – a time when myths were made in the lawless Wild West, and cowboys, gunslingers, and saloon madams left their mark. Cowboys are the classic symbol of this time, and cowboy mounted shooting emulates some of the skills of the stereotypical American Frontier cowboy.
The sport originated in Arizona in the mid-1990s and entails galloping a pole-and-barrel pattern while shooting blanks (not bullets) at balloons from handheld pistols, a side-by-side shotgun, or lever-action rifle. Runs are timed, and riders must shoot their targets in the correct order without tipping over any barrels. Western dress or 1880 period clothing is required, and classes are divided by age, experience, and type of firearm.
Photo: Janice Strong
Blair Anderson, a Director of Alberta-based Canadian Cowboy Mounted Shooters Association, says he and his wife were looking for a sport to do together when they encountered mounted shooting. “We watched a demonstration and were addicted right away. We did gun orientation to get our horses accustomed to gunfire, got restricted (firearm) licences, bought handguns, then got better horses. We competed nonstop for three years across western Canada and the USA.”
Anderson says the sport is really exciting and challenging, and, “It’s a family thing. Your kids, grandparents, husband, and wife — they can all do it. Riders come from barrel racing, cutting, penning, trail riding, any type of riding, really.”
Mounted shooting is an exciting, challenging sport that has grown quickly in Canada. Photo: Janice Strong
The sport has grown quickly, and Mounted Shooters of Canada - the umbrella organization for the sport which is affiliated with groups across Canada - will host the fourth annual Canadian Finals in 2019. Although there’s not much mounted shooting in Canada in the winter, Anderson says there can be up to 100 riders at big Canadian competitions and more than 300 competitors at big shoots in the US.
So, if you’re quick on the draw, consider mounted shooting. But if you prefer fancy hoof work, maybe equitation is more appealing.
Purposeful Hoof Work
Working equitation was founded by representatives of Italy, Portugal, Spain, and France in the mid-1990s and has rapidly expanded through Europe and the Americas. The sport showcases classical horsemanship and the use of horses for work and functionality, while demonstrating the traditional riding attire and tack of different countries.
“It’s a fun way to train and test your horse’s functionality, as well as great cross-training for other disciplines,” says Trish Hyatt, working equitation coach, technical delegate and judge. Photo: Michael T. Photography
Although working equitation is not a former military activity, one of the four phases – dressage – has a military background. The other three phases of the sport include ease-of-handling (a judged obstacle pattern), speed (a timed obstacle pattern), and a cow trial for teams of riders.
The dressage test is conducted in a typical 20-metre by 40-metre arena and judged subjectively; the ease-of-handling trial encompasses eight to 15 obstacles ridden at the walk, trot or canter and is also judged subjectively; the speed trial is a timed round through 10 to 12 obstacles; and the cow trial is a timed penning event for team entries. Cumulative scores from the three trials – dressage, ease-of-handling, and speed – determine individual winners, while team scores include the first three trials plus a cow trial, too.
Photo: Michael T. Photography
Trish Hyatt is a British Columbia-based working equitation coach, technical delegate and judge, and says riders in the sport come from all different backgrounds. With three different trials, eight levels of competition, and the freedom to decide what style of tack to ride in, she feels the sport offers something for everyone. “It’s a fun way to train and test your horse’s functionality, as well as great cross-training for other disciplines.”
She notes that Canadian riders are competing very successfully in the US, and the sport is seeing record growth in Canada. In 2019, Working Equitation Canada – a newly-formed umbrella organization for the sport — will host the second Cross-National Cup and training camp in Alberta, and international competitors are expected.
Photo: Michael T. Photography
So, if you’re interested in a growing sport that offers variety and precision, consider working equitation. But if you’re looking for an adrenaline-charged spectator sport, head to the track for some bareback racing.
Indian relay racing started in the US about 70 years ago, when a group of First Nations decided to create a horse sport that revived and showcased Indigenous horsemanship and athletic ability. The sport came to Canada about 10 years ago and currently teams from Alberta and Saskatchewan are involved, although First Nations in BC, Manitoba and Ontario have expressed interest, too. The first Canadian championship was held in 2018.
The main race in the sport entails one rider galloping bareback around a racetrack – usually on a high strung Thoroughbred - then vaulting onto a second horse for a second lap, and a third horse for a final lap.
Photo: Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association
Photo: Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association
Dexter Bruisedhead, President of Alberta-based Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association, says, “An event can include relay races, a ladies’ warrior race, a men’s warrior race, and a chief race. The ladies’ warrior race is one of the more colourful and exciting races we have. They ride with or without saddles. For the men’s warrior race, riders start on the ground with a 100-yard dash to their horse, vault on their horse, and gallop around the track. There’s a lot of athletic ability involved. For the chief race, every rider wears a headdress. We’ve also introduced the pony race, which runs in front of the grandstand and is for kids.”
He says, “What makes the sport so popular with native and non-native people is the cultural component. There’s Indian regalia, colourful symbols and designs painted on the horses, plus drumming in the background. The cultural component is just so impactful.”
The ladies’ warrior race, ridden with or without a saddle, is a thrilling and colourful race. Photo: Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association
Photo: Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association
Bruisedhead explains about the sport, “It’s a reminder for First Nations of who we are and what we’ve lost. A lot of that has to do with horse culture, and the horsemen who were on the plains a few hundred years ago. It’s impactful for us, obviously, but for a lot of other people, too — those who’re interested in the historic nations and warriors of the plains.”
So, if you’re keen on Indigenous horse culture or the excitement of bareback racing, consider Indian relay racing in 2019. Or check out what could become a quintessentially Canadian horse sport.
The basics of skijoring originated thousands of years ago when dogs pulled their owners through the cold, snowy mountains of central Asia on wooden boards. Subsequently, Scandinavians hooked up their reindeer, strapped on their skis, and created the sport of skijoring.
The original version of equine skijoring has a skier towed by an unridden horse, and is believed to have debuted at the 1901 Winter Games. The version of skijoring which is popular in Canada today entails a skier towed behind a galloping horse which is ridden in Western tack. The sport is both grassroots, where horsemen hook up their steeds for fun laps around the field, and a highly specialized competition, where the fastest horse and skier combination wins.
Skijoring is an inexpensive sport that’s lots of fun and easy to get into. Photo: Chad Rowbotham
Photo: Shelby Simmonds
Skijor Canada is the umbrella organization for skijoring in Canada and was created in 2017. Sam Mitchell, a representative, says the sport is fun to do at home with family and friends, inexpensive, and easy to get into. Mitchell notes, “Once your horse is confident dragging weight on both sides, at different speeds and in all conditions, you can pull anything from kids on toboggans to professional skiers.”
There aren’t many competitions in Canada, but Skijordue, which is held near Calgary in February, is the largest skijoring event in the country. It has grown from a private party, where the entry fee was cheese (for the fondue), into a competition with $10,000 in prize money. In 2019, the event will combine grassroots fun with food, fashion, and competitive racing, and offers a great time for riders, skiers, and spectators alike.
Photo: Tara McKenzie
So, if you want to rev up your riding or support a new sport in 2019, consider shooting arrows, slashing swords, swinging lances, blasting guns, training fancy footwork, or galloping through the snow. It’s a new year – time for a new passion!
Find Out More
- Canadian Federation of Mounted Archery
- Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association
- International Jousting Association-USA
- Mounted Shooters of Canada
- Society of Tilt and Lance Cavalry
- US Tent Pegging Association
- Working Equitation Canada
This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2019, the January/February issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: iStock/Katiekk2