Friday, 03 December 2021

The art of horseback archery

The art of horseback archery

HORSEBACK archery is now being taught at the highest international standard in Checkendon.

The village’s equestrian centre, which has been offering lessons for about three years, has built a specialised course which is the first in Britain to be accredited by a master who revived the ancient art in the Eighties.

Lajos Kassai, a holder of multiple Guinness World Records and three state honours in his native Hungary, hopes to visit once the coronavirus threat has passed to personally certify its resident teacher Dimitrios Christou.

Mr Christou grew up in Greece but moved to Britain in 2016 to escape economic hardship.

Now he has dozens of students who are taught using a straight, narrow 99m sunken track in a nearby field which has electronic sensors to record their start and finish times and a single target which can automatically rotate to face them.

The £15,000 facility at the centre off Lovegrove’s Lane was installed by Aztec Plant Services, of Benson, and completed in March.

Mr Christou, who adjudicates gradings for the International Horseback Archery Alliance, plans to invite archers from around the world to compete.

The sport dates back to the Iron Age, when mounted archers fought battles in the Middle East, and has since appeared in many cultures as a form of training for war.

Its modern-day rules were set by 60-year-old Mr Kassai, who is unbeaten in competition and holds a record for shooting more than 5,400 arrows during a 24-hour continuous ride.

Participants dash along a track and fire at a target while standing upright in the stirrups. The most experienced can let off 12 arrows in a single run but accuracy is more important for a good score.

The Henley Standard and Amanda Stewart, an experienced rider, equestrian journalist and former master of the Garth and South Berks Hunt, visited to try it out and watch Mr Christou in action.

Mrs Stewart, from Woodcote, hadn’t fired a bow and arrow before so had to demonstrate basic competence before she was allowed to shoot from Artie, an 18-year-old grey hunter measuring 16 hands high, with her instructor holding him still.

Mr Christou explained that the arrow and both her arms should always be parallel with the ground, even after releasing a shot, and she should fire quickly to prevent “overthinking” her action.

Her first arrow dropped straight to the ground but she quickly improved.

To both her and her instructor’s amazement, she struck the target eight times out of 10 from the horse. Mr Christou, 34, told her: “You’ve probably noticed it’s easier up there because you don’t try too hard to aim — you’re focusing more on your riding technique, so your mind is clearer and you trust your instinct.

“Taking more time gets you more stressed and you don’t actually need to look. It’s about having good technique, which you can do with your eyes closed.

“You’re doing much better than I expected and you’re very good for a beginner as your arrows are landing close together.”

Mrs Stewart responded: “Did you hear that? It’s because I’m enjoying myself.”

She wasn’t allowed to fire arrows while the horse was moving so Mr Christou gave a quick demonstration.

He rode several laps of the ring on Merlin, a 15-hand Connemara, while effortlessly releasing flurries of arrows which all hit home.

He makes most of his own equipment, including a goatskin quiver, although his bow is made in Hungary by someone who “knows what he’s doing”.

These are sculpted from laminated wood and vary from 27lb to 100lb but the heavy ones are easy to fire as long as the archer doesn’t tense up.

“It’s not about going fast but establishing a smooth canter with no connection through the reins — everything is through the body,” explianed Mr Christou. 

“When the rider knows what they’re doing, the horse senses small changes in their stance and reacts.

“It’s like a combination of cross-country riding and archery. Some displays require jumping and shooting at the same time, when all four of the horse’s legs in the air, but that’s very hard.”

Mrs Stewart said: “Dimitrios had me scoring lots of hits on my first go so he must be a pretty good teacher.

“He has got a lovely way about him — he made it feel 100 per cent safe and he’s great with the horses as well.

“He was quiet but thorough and comprehensive and the fact that he understood my pidgin Greek was a bonus.

“I’ve never shot a bow before but it was a fantastic experience. I’m pretty gung-ho anyway as I regularly hunt, shoot and fish and it was fun to add archery to that.

“I’ll give anything a shot, especially if it’s outdoors and in the countryside.

“It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done all year, what with all the covid restrictions.

“It’s so different and I don’t know anyone else who does it. There’s so much less to do right now and I can imagine this becoming popular with businessmen who want to take out their stress and aggression.

“When I was aiming at the target, I was thinking of someone I don’t like but I’d better not say who!”

Mr Christou, who is settled in Britain with his wife Erithelgi and their baby son Hector, was born in Athens.

His family owned a breeding yard and he learned to ride horses bareback aged 12, grabbing their manes to gee them along.

He says: “It was quite dangerous and I fell off many times but it was fun. It was a good way to develop and the saddle came later.”

Mr Christou took up regular archery in 2009, when he got into historic battle re-enactments and took part in shows across Europe.

He then found he was a natural at shooting from a horse and in 2014  became leader of the national Centaurs horseback archery team. Two years later, he and his wife emigrated because the Greek economy was in decline and they could barely make ends meet despite him juggling work as a riding instructor and a welder. Sometimes he would earn 20 euros a day and spend half that on petrol.

Mrs Christou was the first to come to Britain as, unlike her husband, she could speak English and she landed a job as a coach and groom at the Checkendon centre.

When she told centre manager Linda Tarrant about her husband’s skills, he was offered a job too.

At first Mr Christou couldn’t teach because of the language barrier so he did maintenance work, grooming and mucking out with his wife acting as translator.

However, he quickly learned by watching films and reading books and was taking students within about a year.

Mr Christou had to train the centre’s horses for mounted archery as they must be desensitised to noise and other shocks.

He would crack a whip increasingly loudly around them or play a guitar, bang a drum or wave plastic bags until they didn’t flinch.

He joined the British Horseback Archery Association and entered several competitions, winning one for Britain in 2017 which helped attract more clients, including the association’s president Dan Sawyer.

“I see competition as part of my practice and don’t give it too much thought,” he said.

“It’s more important to focus on everyday training because that’s how you build your skills. I’m most interested in helping other people improve.” Mr Christou now has more than 50 students, both men and women, but only eight are learning seriously. They come from across Britain, some as far as Scotland, because of his reputation and his ability to provide trained mounts.

Beginners must be coached one-on-one but may learn in pairs when they can hit the board at least once while cantering.

“Some have never touched a bow before while others are experienced riders, but even the good ones are challenged when they try it because they’ve always had the safety of the reins,” said Mr Christou.

“The first time you let go is the worst because you’ve got no control and must trust the horse to do its job. You learn to feel a sense of safety through the lower legs, which builds up gradually, and your breathing and heart rate must stay low and relaxed.

“Being male or female doesn’t matter as there are many women at the top end of this sport. It’s not about muscle strength but co-ordination and technique, like showjumping, where men and women compete against each other.

“It means that age isn’t a problem for anyone. Look at the Queen — she still rides in her nineties, while one of my best students is a man over 70.”

Mr Christou is in talks about working with the Knights of Middle England battle display team, which has performed at the Stonor Park estate and the Henley Farm and Country Show.

He could appear in a suit of metal armour with a pointed leather hat and boots from Mongolia, where his sport has a long history.

He said: “I’m absolutely loving the job, which is my main motivation because it isn’t going to make you rich and can be really difficult at times. You’re working outdoors in all weathers, even when it’s cold and raining, but it’s what I really want to do.

“My income as a welder or builder could be five times higher but I want to be happy and sometimes you have to decide whether you’re willing to sacrifice that.

“Most people chase money to make their dreams come true but it’s less important when I already have mine.

“I’ve got my health, which is more valuable than money, and live in a beautiful area where I can walk out of my front door and into the woods.

“I can see my family any time I want, which isn’t an option for many. I feel rich just to have that choice.”

Mr Christou drew up plans for the new track himself based on Mr Kassai’s specifications and is looking forward to meeting the master.

Planning permission was not requried because the track has no permanent structures.

Mr Christou said: “My main goal is to make my students better than me.

“This is a different culture from other sports as you’re competing against yourself and trying to get better for the sake of it.

“Sometimes people choose not to compete one year so that another rider can use their horse, or they’ll give advice to other competitors.

“I see this mostly as a martial art because historically it was all about making preparation for war. 

“It’s a very spiritual thing that puts you at peace with yourself — you perform best when you’re not stressed.

“This is a very exciting time and I feel I’ve been working my whole life to reach the standard where I can build this and run it properly.

“It won’t necessarily make more money, or at least I’m not aiming for that, but every master has something they want to achieve and this is mine.

“It’s a big plan but you’ve got to keep looking forward in life or you’re going to be left behind.”

Jennifer Greenbury, who owns the centre with her husband Toby, said: “Dimitrios has always been talking about the Kassai track and persuaded us that it’s something we should be doing..

“We knew nothing about the sport a few years ago but we’re very excited as it could encourage more boys into riding, which is typically seen as a ‘girl’ sport although an awful lot of our female clients have now taken up horseback archery.

“Dimitrios has shown himself to be thorough, patient and generally impressive with all he has accomplished in just four years and it has been a pleasure to help him achieve his vision.

“We don’t have a particular business plan but we’ve invested in this and are confident that it will take off organically. It’s going to be wonderful.”

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