A suburban barn is not where you would expect to find a modern day shield maiden. But alas, as I pulled into the parking lot of the Burnaby Equestrian Centre located just outside of Vancouver, that was precisely who I was going to meet.
Erin Jardine, 26, part-leases a black Canadian warmblood named Mira. She led a fairly standard horse-crazy-girl life, with pony rides on family vacations when she was a kid, taking dressage and jumping lessons and then volunteering at a guest ranch during the summers. While navigating post-secondary education and riding a couple days a week, she felt a lack of direction and goals with her dressage riding.
“I was lost, I didn’t really have a passion,” she said. Then she saw “Wonder Woman” in the movie theater. It was a specific scene, in which the Amazons were performing mounted combat, that inspired her. The mix of horses and archery gave her the inspirational lightbulb moment she had been looking for.
“I have always been intrigued by archery,” Erin said. “It’s got an elegance that I really like.”
After researching, she found out that horseback archery was in fact a “real sport” with international competitions. What’s more, the archery component was something that she could train in with both feet on the ground.
“That’s what really got it into me – that I could practice it without needing a horse,” she enthused.
Horseback archery can essentially be described as shooting an arrow at a stationary target while piloting a moving horse. The targets are positioned so that the rider needs to shoot forward, backward and to the side. Courses vary, from winding tracks marked out with string and poles, to open fields similar to what you would see for an eventing cross-country track. The results are based on speed and accuracy.
There were of course some practical considerations for Erin to take into account when she pursued her training – namely that her barn was not entirely OK with her galloping around their ring shooting arrows (can we say ‘liability issues’?). Erin started taking regular archery lessons and bringing her bow to the barn, simply to let Mira get used to its presence.
“She’s very sensitive to the pent-up energy that happens when I draw the bow,” Erin explained. “It’s a bit like a head-shy horse when you raise a hand.”
And that’s the ultimate independence – when the top part of your body is shooting and the bottom part is riding.
Once Erin mastered the archery skills, she traveled to Poland to put it together with riding. The Horse Archery Clinic in Grunwald combined instruction with an authentic thirteenth century battlefield to practice on.
“It’s a very primitive and cool piece of history in terms of warfare,” Erin described.
She stopped off in Dartmoor, England, on her way home to Canada, as there was one more item to tick off on her Medieval bucket list: horseback falconry. A truly ancient hunting method, it consists of carrying a hooded falcon on your wrist while riding. Hunting dogs flush out prey (such as a crow), and the falcon’s hood is removed and it is released. Dartmoor Hawking operates using off-the-track Thoroughbreds as mounts, taking guests out on excursions.
“So you’re galloping after this falcon – it’s totally old school pursuit hunting.” Erin grinned, gesturing around. I couldn’t help but smile – chasing hawks across green rolling hills seemed very far away from the parking lot we were staring at, seated in plastic lawn chairs while listening to the nearby freeway traffic. “It must have felt like you had time traveled to 400 years ago.” I said. She nodded.
Not surprisingly, learning how to multitask in such a way while riding has helped with Erin’s ‘regular’ riding skills. “You want your hands to be independent of your seat anyways,” she said. “And that’s the ultimate independence – when the top part of your body is shooting and the bottom part is riding.”
Her new project has also been beneficial for Mira, who is gradually becoming desensitized to bows and arrows. “I love having a purpose. There’s so much more to it,” Erin said. “The kind of training that I do with Mira, the clicker training and desentization, helps her be a better horse.”
It’s a very primitive and cool piece of history in terms of warfare.
Erin has found a niche-within-a-niche community, largely thanks to the internet. After simply changing her profile photo on Facebook to one of herself doing archery on horseback, she’s had a plethora of people reaching out to her. From other horseback archers, to photographers and period-costume makers wanting to collaborate on photoshoots.
She’s also determined to build horseback archery instruction into a business, but it’s a process, and insurance is a big factor. “What I want to target is people who are already good riders. People who would be comfortable cantering without hands, and take them into the archery side.” Erin described.
Until then, Erin will continue to pursue her day job, as a journeyman electrician. She recently passed her final exams for the certification.
“The reason why I entered the trades is to make money within a reasonable timeline to spend on horses,” she laughed. “Interestingly enough, there are tons of tradespeople who also ride!”
As we sat in those dusty white chairs, Erin and I contemplated a life with horses that reached beyond showing every weekend and tireless ribbon chasing. The pure sport aspect of equestrian sport is beautiful, but there is something a little magical about building a passion and life based off of one movie scene, especially when it takes you on a tour around the world.
That night, I took another look at Erin’s Instagram. Falcons and armor and bows and arrows were mixed with very ‘normal’ photos of dressage tests and cute photos of Mira – who, incidentally, would not look out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie, with her long mane, sturdy build and jet-black coloring.
On one hand, Erin is a young woman simply trying to fit horses into her daily life and career – but she’s also a reminder to all of us that horses can be precisely what we want them to be, no matter how fantastical your vision may be.