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Petaluma equestrians hit the mark


A group of Petaluma equestrians has emerged as pioneers of modern horse archery in America, a nascent sport that’s growing from deep-seated historical roots.

Among the tight-knit local club is Mike Loades, a historian and medieval weapons expert who works as a television host and producer. Loades got his first taste of horse archery on a film set in 1974, and he’s since traveled the world to practice the sport before bringing it to Petaluma, where he co-founded California’s first horse archery club, he said.

“It is both a martial art and an art form, it’s a performance art and an equestrian art — it’s a lot of things,” the 66-year-old said. “I wanted to establish a place where, whatever people are interested in — international competition or national competitions or pursuing it as a martial art or a performance art — they have the facilities … and out of that we’ve built a wonderful community.”

Aptly named the California Centaurs, the club is comprised of around 15 members who train, attend workshops and travel across the country to compete, according to co-founder Hilary Merrill. The club operates from the 264-acre Sonoma Coastal EquesTraining Center in rural Petaluma, where Merrill also works as a trainer.

Merrill, who has been riding horses since her childhood, said she found herself quickly hooked on the thrilling nature of the sport, which requires her to ride her horse at a gallop with no grip on the reins, rapidly firing off arrows at targets along the track.

Horse archery has existed for centuries as a tactic for warfare, hunting and protecting herds, but the art was reborn as a modern sport around the early 2000s, Merrill said.

Though competitive horse archery is thriving in Europe, it’s just beginning to gain popularity in America, Merrill said, with a smattering of clubs emerging in states including Arizona and Oregon. Enthusiasts travel from as far as Los Angeles to attend workshops and take lessons in the equestrian sport at the Petaluma facility, she said.

“Horse archery adds a whole other dimension to equestrianism,” Merrill, 33, said. “It’s so different and challenging. It’s really special to be part of a sport that’s just starting out, where there’s room to build it in an effective and safe way and I think it’s really enticing and exciting. With a traditional sport, there’s very little room to be creative.”

Merrill spent a month in Poland and Germany to learn more about the art and how it’s practiced in those regions, and plans to travel to South Africa this year for another training session.

“It’s a strange addiction — it’s extremely empowering and extremely challenging … there’s something about it that’s really magnetic and offers the ability to build an extremely unique connection with the horse,” she said.

At the Petaluma stable, there are about eight horses trained to successfully complete the archery course, Merrill said. She’s training her 4-year-old thoroughbred to compete, and she said building a rapport with the animal is a critical part of the sport.

“It’s really so much about a relationship with a horse, they need to trust you even more than training technically for it,” she said.

Focus is a key to excelling in the sport, as are strength and finesse, she said. Since riders forgo using reins while shooting arrows, a certain level of horsemanship is required, and participants are trained on each element of the sport separately, Loades said.

Practices are held on a 90-meter track that horses usually complete in about 10 to 12 seconds, Loades said. Targets can be arranged in a variety of configurations, including some that require ambidexterity to hit targets positioned on both sides of the track, or others that require a “jarmaki” shot, where the archer shoots with the draw-hand behind his or her head to hit a target on the ground, he said.

“You have to get very, very quick at it, you need to draw and aim quickly, and you need to be in flow and rhythm with the horse,” Loades said.

For Loades, who recently penned a book about the history and development of the bow and archery, the sport also provides a way to connect with other cultures and study other countries that have long practiced horse archery, including Turkey and Japan, he said.

“Once you become as obsessed with it as I am, you start studying all these different cultures that have a history of it and in an age when we are more focused on national identity with history, this is a wonderful door that opens cross-cultural study,” he said.

The club has drawn members ranging in age from 7 to 73, including Petaluma resident Alyssa Hoey, who joined shortly after the club’s founding in 2014, she said.

Hoey, a self-described history buff who became involved in horse archery while teaching English in Japan, said she’s grateful for the outlet to practice a sport she’s grown to love.

“It’s full of wonderful people who have become close friends of mine,” Hoey, 35, said. “It’s a challenge and it’s something you train for, and you spend time with your horse and friends to do this great sport.”

This year, the founders plan to continue to develop the club and work to positively shape the landscape for the sport, Merrill said.

“It’s brilliant fun — it’s the best, most exhilarating thing you can do on a horse,” Loades said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)