Yabusame: The Art and Ritual of Japanese Horseback Archery

Yabusame: The Art and Ritual of Japanese Horseback Archery

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Ancient. Colorful. Hard as hell. Learn how the samurai's "way of the bow and horse" evolved into a beautiful art form.

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

Yabusame competitors from the Edo era.
This Edo-era panel depicts the bright costumes and tack of rider and horse in yabusame. (Source: Wikipedia)

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.

Yabusame archer from the Ogasawara school.
An archer of the Ogasawara school. Most of the tack and costumes worn during yabusame are considered antique, as the techniques used for making the saddles as close to the Kamakura style as possible have largely been lost. (Source: Wikipedia)

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:馬に乗ったまま弓を引くのはとても難しそうですが、どのような稽古をしているのですか? A:普段は、木馬に乗って稽古します。馬上で弓を引くには体を安定させなければなりませんので、鐙に足を踏ん張って立つ姿勢を取る必要があります。これを「立透かし(たちすかし)」と言います。この姿勢が正しくできないと、馬に乗って弓を引くことはできません。

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.

弓馬術礼法小笠原教場 近畿菱友会

騎射(きしゃ)とは、馬上にて弓を引く技の総称です。 流鏑馬、笠懸、犬追物は騎射の一部です。現在では、流鏑馬と笠懸が執行されています。 Q:流鏑馬は歴史の教科書やテレビでは見たことがありますが、実際に観覧しようと思った場合はどこで見られるのでしょうか? …

(JP) Link: Horseback Archery FAQ

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.

Takeda-Ryu (武田流)

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.


正統古武道として日本に二流派しかない武田流騎射流鏑馬を後世に正しく伝え保存するため、我々は精進しています。 2021年4月11日 『世界!ニッポン行きたい人応援団』でビデオレターでの出演が放送されます。4月19日(月)20時〜 2時間スペシャル(テレビ東京・関東地方放送)※熊本は後日、RKK熊本放送土曜日短縮版放送の見込みです。なお民法公式テレビポータル(TVer)で1週間、無料配信予定です。 2021年4月11日 新型コロナウイルス感染症拡大防止のため、今年度(2021年度)のやぶさめ少年塾は開催を見合わせることとなりました。新しい生活様式の定着とともに、改めて開催できる日が参りますよう、祈念いたします。 2020年4月25日 新型コロナウイルス感染症拡大防止のため、今年度のやぶさめ少年塾(第14期生)は開催中止となりました。亡くなられた方々へのご冥福を心からお祈りするとともに、1日も早い収束と社会の回復を祈念いたします。 2020年4月12日(3月8日に追記) 新型コロナウイルスの感染防止対策のため、やぶさめ少年塾(第14期生)の募集要項に、開催日の順延を組み込みました。ただし感染の収束が見込めない時は、中止となる場合があります。 2020年2月11日 やぶさめ少年塾 第14期生の募集のお知らせ 2019年9月30日 出水神社秋季大祭御奉納 武田流小笠原流合同流鏑馬 関連行事のお知らせ ご案内 2019年8月18日 令和改元記念 出水神社秋季大祭御奉納 武田流小笠原流合同流鏑馬のお知らせ ご案内 2019年2月19日 やぶさめ少年塾 第13期生の募集のお知らせ 2018年9月22日 平成30年度くまもと秋のお城まつり 武田流流鏑馬演武のお知らせ ご案内 2018年9月22日 平成30年度出水神社秋季例大祭 武田流流鏑馬奉納のお知らせ ご案内 2018年3月21日 平成30年度出水神社春季祭典 武田流流鏑馬奉納のお知らせ ご案内 2017年12月23日 やぶさめ少年塾 第12期生の募集のお知らせ 2017年9月9日 平成29年度くまもと秋のお城まつり 武田流流鏑馬演武のお知らせ ご案内 2017年9月9日 平成29年度出水神社秋季例大祭 武田流流鏑馬奉納のお知らせ ご案内 2016年9月11日 平成28年度くまもと秋のお城まつり 武田流流鏑馬演武のお知らせ ご案内 2016年9月11日 平成28年度出水神社秋季例大祭 武田流流鏑馬奉納のお知らせ ご案内 2016年1月11日 やぶさめ少年塾 第10期生の募集のお知らせ 2015年7月13日 小笠原流との合同演武についてのお知らせ。 2015年3月9日 2015年3月9日 2015年1月25日 やぶさめ少年塾 第9期生の募集のお知らせ 2014年12月22日 くまもと文化振興会の機関誌「kumamoto」に掲載されました。 2014年12月20日 2014年5月11日 やぶさめ少年塾 第8期を開始しました。 2014年3月1日 やぶさめ少年塾 第8期生の募集を開始しました。 2014年1月11日 自治労くまもと新春号に当会の記事が掲載されました。 2014年1月8日 あいず4号に当会の記事が掲載されました。

Ogasawara-Ryu (小笠原流)

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.

Yabusame Today



Participation by women in yabusame has slowly increased over the years. There’s even an all-women yabusame festival.

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)

Yabusame rider at the Aoi Matsuri
A yabusame rider during Aoi Matsuri at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto. (Picture: yuu503 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

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.



Yabusame at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu. The crowds are usually close to the track, making for an invigorating experience when the horses race by.

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.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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