Eyes of Erin

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Volcano Ridge Unity of Archers Shootout

It’s clear horse archery is a photogenic sport, grab a bow and jump on a horse and instantly gain some internet attention. It truly is a beautiful image, one that I am addicting to creating and sharing, to spread awareness of the sport and the competition and community it fosters so that insurance companies and other skeptics might see it as a legitimate thing. I’ve mentioned before in my instagram entries that I am not allowed to shoot at the barn where my steed, Mira is located. This limits me to ground archery and ultimately the obligation to travel in order to learn and better myself. I had just completed a round of trades school and as I shifted my attention back to horse archery, an event hosted by Volcano Ridge caught my eye.

I’ve had my attention on the horse archery community in Washington for a while now. BC has very limited options for horse archery practice on loaned horses, much less any competition. The US has MA3, the Mounted Archery Association of the Americas, a well established organization offering insurance to their branch clubs for practice, clinics, and competition. It was just my luck I had the money, the time and the drive (literally) to travel to southern Washington and introduce myself to other horse archery addicted people who might help me in my journey.

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Arrowhead Acres is the location of the Volcano Ridge Mounted Archers Club, an idealistic place for any horse nut like me. There were targets throughout a giant hay field, a perfect 90m Korean track and a separate Hungarian track complete with a rotating target. The work that this tiny community has put into this place showed. I was a Canadian stranger welcomed with open arms, and an open saddle as it were. Although not publicly advertised, I was able to request a loaner horse for the competition and was given River Song, a beautiful draft cross and a veteran with horse archery.

Competition wise, I did not hold any expectations for myself. I wanted to handle my equipment safely, be fair and kind to the horse and make connections with people in a positive way so that I might be invited back. With that in mind, I achieved everything I wanted. Still, it was a competition, and this is where the photos don’t tell the entire story.

Lovely gentle River was very used to the Korean track, to the point where after the track ended she would stop short, give a tight turn and walk back to her buddies. She did her job wonderfully for the Korean track, but I could not hit a single target on the first day. I realized how detrimental a western saddle can be to my personal style of shooting which requires short stirrups and a lot of mobility in the hips through the two point position. The Korean track teaches the archer a lot about the value in one arrow. For each target on the track the archer is only allowed one shot at each. The timing and positioning of your body and the arrow is imperative to success, and it’s a lesson I learned as I drew a great big 0 on my scorecard.

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Struggling with knocking during the Korean track

Truly unique to Arrowhead Acres is their creation of the Polish or Cross Country track. I was very excited for the course, to be galloping in an open field flawlessly knocking arrows and shooting as many as I could. Everything happened except the flawless knocking. My anxiety and nerves were woefully getting the better of me as my hands would slip on the string and many arrows fell straight to the ground. Again, something considerable that doesn’t make it to the photos on Instagram. The course start line was the end of the Korean track, and in my practice runs I tried my best to push River to go faster in the exact point she was so used to stopping. Perhaps if I had a week with her to practice we might have worked out the problem. I felt bad for her, my nerves and competitiveness took a stronger hold on my mind than my horsemanship. Once she did get herself going, she was confused and I was pushing her to keep the gallop at every stride. This caused me to compromise my shooting position and the track was frustrating at the time.

There were cathartic moments, River’s people told me to yell at her, they lended me spurs and I mustered my best metal growls to encourage her along and to keep the canter. In hindsight, I really should have let go of the need to canter, I should have settled into a trot and focused on practicing knocking and shooting. That’s where the energy of the competition was poisonous to me. At the end of the day I sat with my lessons and allowed them to sink in. I didn’t care about the competition really, after it was all over, I couldn’t understand where this frantic energy came from. But I reminded myself, this is why I came here, to do a competition, to unearth the anxieties, the mistakes and the lessons that only come when the pressure is on.

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River Song, a saint among horses

Regardless, this was the best weekends of my entire life, and the struggles simply pointed to the necessity of this experience to my development as an athlete and person. Amidst the difficult lessons were beautiful people, gorgeous country and great food. The campfire and singing felt like an instant family setting. Despite the shortcomings of the competition, I fell asleep fulfilled.

Our third day was the Hungarian track, with one rotating target and as many arrows as you can shoot in a 99m track. This was the day where River Song and I made our peace, I did not feel good about pushing her in a situation that was not set up for her success yesterday. Yet horses forgive so very easily, and she carried me through the Hungarian track like an old pro. The highlight of my entire weekend when it comes to shooting came to me as I relaxed, I knocked the first arrow of my run and it flew right into the brilliant red of the Hungarian bullseye. I laugh to myself with this memory because I was so shocked at what had happened, the rest of my run was spend trying to recuperate myself after I let out a loud “HOLY SHIT” in front of quite a few new christian friends. I’m so glad Michael Anfang the photographer who donated his time to the competition, caught a gorgeous photo of that run. What you can’t see are my sweaty palms, the green dress sliding between my butt and the saddle and making it tough to stand up after sitting on the saddle for too long.

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Some of those arrows on that target must be mine right?

Finishing the weekend I was so proud of myself. I had an entire set of new skills and lessons from my first competition in horse archery. I was starstruck by the host family, the Massey’s at their trust, their communication and their unconditional love for each other, their animals and the land. I drove away just dying to stay, dreading the transition back to real life. And yet, it’s that contrast between reality and fantasy that makes horse archery that amazing and addicting. The Unity of Archers Shootout and my horse River Song bore such incredible lessons for me, the newbie lone Canadian archer.

Erin Jardine