Horseback Archery at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan
Arrow after arrow thumped home into the targets as the horses galloped across the field and the competitors from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Turkey, and the USA battled it out for glory in the women’s finals of the horseback archery at the World Nomad Games.
It was a tense and thrilling event and the whole crowd were on edge as they waited to see who would be victorious, and who could be declared not only the best horseback archer but the best nomad of the event.
A City of Yurts
I was in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan, watching – or more accurately, experiencing – the third edition of the World Nomad Games. While many of the events took place in the Hippodrome on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake, up in the mountains a huge ethno village, with almost a thousand yurts, had been established in a beautiful valley that epitomizes the Central Asian steppe.
This was the real purpose of the World Nomad Games, as it was a place for nomadic culture to be displayed and for visitors to see traditional Central Asian life in action. As part of this cultural exchange, archers and horseback archers from around the world had assembled to shoot it out for glory at Kyrchyn Valley.
Burkut Saluu: Hunting With Eagles
After walking through this veritable city of yurts in the valley, I saw eagles flying across the field, and stumbled across the Burkut Saluu. This event is a traditional competition between eagle hunters. Not people that hunt eagles of course, but people who train eagles to hunt for them.
In the middle of a green pasture, a Kyrgyz man was spinning around a dead pigeon attached to a line of rope. The eagle followed and then flew off, and the eagle hunter had to ensure that the bird of prey returned to him. Each round lasted a minute, and each competitor had to see how many times they could get their eagle to return to them.
It worked, for the most part, until a drone was flown up to catch footage and scared off an eagle. Modernity, versus tradition, in action on the Kyrgyz steppe.
Traditional Kyrgyz Archery
Across the field from the Burkut Saluu event, a line of archers in traditional dress were readying their bows. This was traditional Kyrgyz archery, where the contestants line up and face away from the target and shoot their arrows whilst turning around.
There was a flurry of confusion, as the contestants from across the world – from as far afield as Hungary, Mongolia, South Korea and Turkey – were only just told the ‘local Kyrgyz rules’ and began to fire off their arrows.
Amongst the traditional dress and display of nomadic clothing, a few figures in cowboy hats and jeans stood out. A team from Texas had flown all the way over from the US to compete in the archery, but, I soon found out, not just in the Kyrgyz archery, but in horseback archery too.
The big nomadic sporting event being held in Kyrchyn Valley was horseback archery. The traditional Kyrgyz archery – as well as Turkish and Korean archery events which were also held – were really just a warm-up for the real event, or at least so the spectators thought.
A true test of nomadic skill is to hit a target with a bow while at full gallop on a horse, and while the archery was going on, the field was being set up for this most skillful of events, that would soon have the crowd enthralled.
Each contestant had to be attired in ‘national dress’ and so while there was a colourful display of nomadic outfits, there was also the US team in their cowboy gear. Three targets had been set across a riding range, and each horseback archer was scored not just on hitting the target but on completing the course in the specified time limit of 14 seconds.
I spoke to Mike, a horseback archery veteran from Texas who had competed in several international events. He’d won a silver medal in a competition in South Korea previously, and was excited that they’d managed to bring over an entire team from the states. He was happy to be there, and although Mike pulled out of the horseback archery event, in the end, the US team captain, Hadley, came in tenth in the men’s event.
The US Archery Team
Mike had explained that in Texas, where the archery team came from, there was a growing community of horseback archers that were even beginning to hold a few national events across the US. Everyone present had travelled to Kyrgyzstan on their own accord, paying for flights and taking time off from work.
From the start, like many of the teams present, they had faced disorganisation and even late night bow inspections at 11 pm. They only met their horses before the contest began, and although the women were told that they would be competing straight after the men’s event, in the end, they had to wait until the next day.
The following morning, I turned up bright and early again at Kyrchyn Valley to see the teams practicing. Iranians and Americans were shooting side by side, and soon horses were galloping down the line.
The Women’s Event
The women’s horseback archery began slowly as the competitors adjusted to the horses and to the field. Soon enough though, arguments were breaking out as the Mongolians kicked over targets because they thought the Kyrgyz team were getting too many advantages from the local referees.
The US team, comprising Suzie and Serena from Texas, were confused as to what horses they could ride, but they put on a brilliant performance that resulted in Serena going through to the final four.
Although the start was slow, by the time the final began, the women were on point, and arrow after arrow hit home into the three targets along the range.
Mongolia, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and the USA had all gone through to the final four and the crowd was on edge along the sidelines as the battle for nomadic supremacy began. As cool as anything, the Turkish competitor, Janset from Kayersi, took the overall victory, hitting almost every target on every run.
Mongolia and the USA were left to shoot it out for silver and bronze on the range, with Mongolia ultimately coming in second and the USA taking third.
The US archery team were ecstatic, shouting and screaming, gathering around the winning horse and rider while the media crowded to take pictures.
They were the underdogs, a country not part of the nomadic world or culture, but in their cowboy boots and hats they had still stirred up the competition.
For me, this was what the World Nomad Games was really about, showcasing the culture and traditions of nomads from across Central Asia while also getting the rest of the world involved in this strange, but compelling world of nomadic sports.
All Words and Pictures by Richard Collett