I was recently invited by the Iran Archery Federation to travel to the country for two weeks to work with their fledgling horse archery team. What follows is a little write up on my time there and reflections….
I was initially contacted by the Iran Archery Federation who requested I come to Iran to coach some students as well as to advise on how to develop the sport within the country. Being half Iranian myself I naturally jumped at the chance. Talk about dreams come true!
It may surprise some that archery has only been practised as a sport, and at any modern-day organised level, for six years in Iran. Pretty astonishing considering Iran has a long, rich and envious history in archery. Some even say the word archery comes from the name of mythic figure in Iranian history called “Aarash” who was said to have been an amazing archer. Prior to these six there was nothing and you would not have found any Iranian archers at any major international competitions. This all changed when a Mr Karim Safei, an archer, set up the Federation which now boasts some fantastic facilities. The organisation has come on leaps and bounds with Iranian archers now featuring and bringing home medals at competitions.
Last year the organisation decided to set up the Iranian Horseback Archery Federation, and with some funding it secured a small riding school in the Tehranpars district of the capital. The team is headed by Mr Mehdi Safei, nephew of the aforementioned Karim. The school acts as a riding school, archery range and has a small sandy arena just about big enough to squeeze a small gallop into it for horse archery. However, the place is not ideal. They need a longer run and by far the biggest downside to it is the major road that runs behind it. Due to this the targets on the run are at a low level meaning they can’t properly practice the Hungo-European competition style of horse archery. In my time there I lost count of the arrows that missed the target and went over the wall into the road. How we did not kill anyone I will never know. A complete Health & Safety no-no but hey, it’s Iran.
The group have made a good amount of progress in the one year they have been going. They have had some literature and DVDs sent to them by the great Dr. Holm Newman in the USA plus had a DVD of the Nemethy brothers sent to them by a contact in Hungary. Much of what they had learned was from You Tube. Not ideal but I suppose it shows how much you can learn from the internet! There were only 5 people who could ride and shoot and all of them were using a slightly dodgy Mediterranean release with a semi-correct Kassai-esque nocking technique. I had work to do….
Now any readers with experience of the Middle East will know exactly what I mean when I say they are not the most organised people in the world. After a few days of tea drinking, chatting, eating delicious kebabs and seeing a few sites it soon became apparent that there was actually no programme in place. I mean nothing…..I was told that other than work with the organising committee, I would be training 60 students over 6 days in a classroom….yes a classroom. I had absolutely no idea how on earth I was going to do this. Horseback archery in a classroom with no bows, no arrows and no horses? Not happening…..
I had to chuck all Middle Eastern niceties out of the window and demand that this simply would not do. After some lengthy negotiations they got two days in the classroom and I got four at their school. Phew….
That evening I had to scribble down my plan for the two days on the back of a tissue box. Day 1 – the history of horse archery, archery in Islam, modern day archery, competitions (Hungo-European and Korean) and rules. Yes this really did take 5 hours. Day 2 – we looked at form, nocking techniques (thumb vs fingers), release, some practical exercises and how to work with a horse. Although I thought it would be awful, it was actually a lot of fun in the end thanks to the Iranian sense of humour. By far the highlight of these two days was the continuous “what if” questions about competitions – Q: “what if someone only rides really quickly for points and doesn’t really shoot the arrows properly?” A: why the hell is he doing horseback archery? Q: “what if the horse jumps up and down while running down the gallop?” A: nothing – he jumps up and down. Q: “what happens if two people get the two highest scores?” A: “bloody good question, let me call Abdul-Majid Schrade in Germany now and find out” (I actually forget about the time difference and woke the poor guy up!)
Then the fun began – 3 days of on the ground practical tuition with 60 students, 6 bows and around 40 bent arrows with fletchings missing (if you were lucky). I love Iran!
The first two days concentrated on the two different nocking techniques. Day one – from the quiver, belt, boots or wherever else (one student did actually try from the teeth!) Day two – nocking arrows held in the bow hand. Both days were quite intense as I had to work with everyone on an individual level as well as look after the group as a whole. Everyone was taught how to nock and draw using either the thumb or Mediterranean draw. Most actually decided they preferred using their thumbs, which I thought was incredible, seeing as many were actually recurve and compound archers. It quickly became apparent to those who had been used to fingers how much quicker the thumb technique was. Overall the level was excellent; other than a few people who could not or would not listen, everyone soon picked up the basics of nocking, drawing and releasing. The women it must be said were fantastic – very keen, very quick learners and very good technique wise. I constantly stated this as much as possible as loudly as possible to the bemusement of the all the men.
The final day was about fun and about them using what they had learnt under pressure. We had a small team competition with relay races and nocking while jumping, running, hopping and anything else I could think of. Then everyone had two gallops down the track for a mini competition.
It’s still early days but I hope the Iranians will go on to really develop and become amongst the best in the world as they once were. While I was there a small PR machine was grinding away and we were on TV almost every night. We got some good headlines in the papers too and it is hoped that the government will sit up and take note – fingers crossed they may send some more funding their way. This year they will be sending a team of six to compete in South Korea at the World Championships and I have asked them to also attend the European Championships in Germany.
My time in Iran was without doubt a highlight in my life and I am definitely going back at the first opportunity. While I was there I met many people from far flung places in Iran who live and breed horses, so the plan is to go back and accept all the initiations I received plus experience some of the horse culture that is still very much there.
Highlight of my trip – riding a pure, 100% Turkmen horse. A real treat.
by Neil Payne