We see it in movies and TV shows all the time — brave armed warriors on horseback shooting arrow after arrow into enemy forces. Horseback archery has been an indelible aspect of warfare and hunting for centuries across many cultures. In Japan, one form of horseback archery evolved from a sport to a ritual that’s still honored today — yabusame (流鏑馬).
The rules are deceptively simple: shoot three arrows at three wooden targets while riding at full gallop down a narrow track roughly 250 meters or more in length while passionately shouting Inyo (陰陽), the word meaning yin and yang, light and darkness.
Okay, maybe not so simple. Any equestrian can tell you how difficult it is to achieve this harmony of movement between rider and horse, not to mention shooting arrows while maintaining control of your steed. Yabusame takes years of practice to perfect, but it is a highly coveted art that emphasizes the samurai spirit and the unspoken language between rider and horse, known as kyuba no michi (弓馬の道) (きゅばのみち), or “the way of the bow and horse.”
The Origins of Horseback Archery
Long before the introduction of the horse, mastery of the bow defined a warrior and hunter, requiring discipline, posture, and patience to learn. The type of bow used in both yabusame and archery (弓道; kyudo) is a daikyu (大弓), roughly 6 1/2 feet long. Due to its length mounted archers fire most effectively from the left, though seasoned archers can shoot from the right.
No certain consensus has been reached on when exactly horseback archery (騎射; kisha) first made an appearance in Japan, but a theory posits that early Japanese warriors encountered the martial art in battles with mainland forces.
So…how exactly did horses end up on an island nation? That’s another long debate entirely, but some experts suspect they came with mounted warriors who reached Japan from the Korean peninsula. The early horses of Japan were hardy and high-tempered. Their tough hooves allowed them to nimbly navigate the mountainous regions of Japan, which made them ideal for warfare and travel.
Two other styles of horseback archery exist: kasagake (笠懸), and inu-ou-mono (犬追物). In kasagake at its basic form, riders shoot at three targets on their left, then ride back along the track to shoot at the targets on the other side. This style of kisha is considered more martial than the others.
Inu-ou-mono involved riders shooting arrows at live dogs in order to perfect their aim on moving targets for hunting purposes. For obvious reasons, this sport is no longer practiced.
The Art of Yabusame
Two events hallmarked the beginning of yabusame. Sometime in the 6th century, Emperor Kinmei ordered three arrows be fired from horseback as an offering of peace to the gods. Later, Emperor Uda instructed renowned horseback archer Minamoto no Yoshiari to create a discipline and etiquette firmly rooted in yabusame.
In the Kamakura period, yabusame was promoted as a way to keep warriors’ martial spirits up and ready for war. Samurai spent hours with their horses practicing. Archers, or ite (射手) who failed to shoot all three targets were compelled to commit ritual suicide, or seppuku. Zen meditation was also incorporated into yabusame and is still practiced today. Because of its strong prevalence in the Kamakura era, today’s costumes and horse tack are based off those worn in that time.
What makes Japanese horseback archery different from other forms across the world? According to the Japan Equestrian Archery Association (大日本弓馬会), it’s all in a certain riding style entirely unique to Japan known as tachisukashi (立ち透かし). In order to accurately shoot arrows, the rider must keep his hips away from the saddle and avoid pressing his legs against the horse’s body. This way, the movement of the galloping horse doesn’t hinder the rider’s aim. Yabusame perfectly highlights this technique, but it’s one that takes time and training to master, according to a FAQ on a yabusame school’s website:
Q: Riding a horse while shooting arrows looks incredibly difficult. What sort of training do you do? A: Normally, you practice by riding a wooden horse. When drawing a bow on a horse, you must stabilize your body, so you need to stand with your feet braced in the stirrups. This is called tachisukashi. If you can’t correctly learn this form, you can’t ride a horse and draw a bow.
For those who’ve never ridden a horse, a rider communicates most signals and commands with their legs and reins. With the legs and hips not making contact with the horse in tachisukashi, it’s difficult for a rider to communicate signals to the horse and for the horse to know what to do. Not only that, but the rider can’t hold the reins and string and fire arrows simultaneously. This goes beyond technique and training, but a unique understanding and sense of trust between the two for that brief amount of time when one doesn’t control the other.
Pupils of yabusame start off as apprentices, training for years in tachisukashi, archery, and equestrianism. Young children and adults in their 20s have a much better chance of succeeding due to their youth and the time commitment required to master yabusame.
The Schools of Yabusame
Two notable schools stand out as pioneers and inheritors of the ritualistic beauty of yabusame and other horseback archery modes.
This school was established by the same Minamoto no Yoshiari who Emperor Uda had ordered to spruce up the art of yabusame. For whatever reason, the Takeda style is the one most depicted in film and media. Famed Japanese actor Mifune Toshirou, known for his incredible roles in Akira Kurosawa films, was a student of this school and showcased his horseback archery skills in movies like Seven Samurai.
The Ogasawara school was founded by famed archery master Ogasawara Nagakiyo at the behest of the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Long after the introduction of guns and other modern weapons, the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune instructed Ogasawara Heibei Tsuneharu to revive the art, and it’s thanks to him that yabusame flourished once again in the Edo period, ensuring the school’s continuation into the present day.
Official website of the Ogasawara School: http://www.ogasawara-ryu.gr.jp/
The main difference between these two schools is the design of their targets. Ogasawara archers use plain wooden targets, while Takeda archers shoot at targets made from bamboo with a paper design attached.
The introduction of European war methods and weapons heralded the decline of horseback archery. While its practice in war waned, yabusame migrated into the realm of public ritual. Today both men and women train in this art, often performed at Shinto shrines or for visiting foreign dignitaries.
The purpose of the rituals vary from offerings of fertility, warding off evil, or praying for peace. It’s a common sight to see Western breeds like American Quarter horses and Arabians in yabusame. However, horses with tenuous bloodlines tracing back to the first native horses are also common. It’s interesting to note that Western breeds are generally bigger and faster than their Japanese counterparts, and therefore add more difficulty to performing yabusame.
Many shrines host yabusame events, with some of the more popular ones listed below.
Washibara Hachiman-gū (鷲原八幡宮)
This shrine on the outskirts of Tsuwano in Shimane prefecture is renowned for housing the last remaining Kamakura era training grounds for yabusame. The Ogasawara school puts on an amazing and popular display of horseback archery here.
Aoi Matsuri (葵祭)
This May festival is hosted by Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto, and traces its origins to Emperor Kinmei’s reign. Plagued by natural disasters, the Emperor sent a messenger to the shrine to help appease the gods and pray for renewed crops. It was here that the image of a galloping horse shooting at three targets made the strongest impact, making this festival perhaps the largest major display of yabusame today.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu (鶴岡八幡宮)
This shrine sits at the heart of Kamakura, and both yabusame and kyudo are practiced within the expansive shrine grounds. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura era and the one who requisitioned the first Ogasawara to establish a yabusame school, moved the shrine to its present location in order for the gods to protect his government.
Kasuga Taisha (春日大社)
At this temple’s December festival, elementary school boys get a chance to show off their burgeoning skills in an event called chigo yabusame (稚児流鏑馬). Instead of galloping down the track like experienced ite, the young archers ride to each target, usually accompanied by Shinto priests and their teachers, and shoot their targets while crying the traditional inyo.
The Future of Yabusame
It seems yabusame isn’t in any danger of fading into obscurity again, and it’s easy to see why. Emblazoned on the homepage of the Japan Equestrian Archery Association is the motto 鞍上無人, 鞍下無馬 （あんじょうひとなく, あんかうまなし） — “no one above the saddle, no horse under the saddle.” A four kanji compound also beautifully encapsulates the beauty of horseback archery — 人馬一体 (jinba ittai). The rider and horse become one body, one unit, and to witness that in the short amount of time it takes the horse to gallop down the track is an honor.
Thanks to the Internet, equestrians can share their experiences and hardships, and many learners of yabusame are doing just that. Ameblo bloggers Naoko and kiri post daily about their struggles and triumphs learning yabusame, from fretting about their bow stringing technique to fondly talking about the horses they rode that day.
It’s clear that yabusame involves a ritual not just for the gods, but for the horse and rider who undergo vigorous training together. Witnessing and learning to appreciate that unity is a priceless experience.