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.