The palomino quarterhorse is cantering across the grassy paddock ringed by trees when her rider lifts a bow, pulls an arrow from his quiver, and shoots into the heart of a foam boar, one of eight targets planted at intervals in a New Braunfels-area meadow.
The rider is Trey Schlichting, the horse Zoe, and the sport an ancient display of skill and horsemanship he’s been practicing and teaching for nearly two decades.
Schlichting, founder and lead instructor at A-Company Mounted Archery Training, runs students through the 400-meter-long horseback field course and others he designed on land that his family has owned since the city’s founding.
A necessary survival skill throughout history for hunters and soldiers in battle, mounted archery has been practiced since the Iron Age (1200-600 B.C.). Practiced as a sport today, horseback archery involves masterful horseback riding and archery skills and is popular across Europe, the Middle East, and in South Korea, host of the World Horseback Archery Championships held this month.
Since being introduced in the United States around 2001, it has become one of the fastest-growing martial arts and equestrian sports in the country. The Mounted Archery Association of the Americas (MA3), formed in 2007, lists 30 affiliate chapters.
Hilary Hargreaves, president of Horseback Archery USA, said there are 300-500 members total in both organizations, which differ slightly in their approach to the sport and scoring emphasis. She served with Schlichting on the MA3 board of directors before both transitioned to Horseback Archery USA, which more closely matched their ideology.
“He was the first competition organizer to recognize the need for non-linear and barrier-free horse archery courses that would simulate hunting on horseback and warring from horseback more realistically,” said Hargreaves, who lives in Florida. “Many horse archers who came from other equestrian disciplines become bored with straight courses where there is a barrier to guide your horse (like autopilot) because they miss the partnership they have with the horse where they would have to work as a team.”
There are many course types and distances used in horseback archery, and rules to go with them, but the general goal is to complete a track within a given period of time, striking as many three-dimensional targets as possible.
Schlichting, an avid bowhunter and horseman since childhood, got interested in horse archery after reading a magazine article about the sport nearly 20 years ago. He taught himself the fundamentals before teaching others starting in 2009. By 2013, he was winning titles, both Texas Mounted Champion and America’s Champion.
In the last four years, he has been traveling widely for both competitions and to teach clinics. “Until about a year or two years ago, I would go to Australia every year and travel the continent, teach mounted archery for a month,” Schlichting said. “I only made enough money to see Australia and pay my bills while I was gone. I never got rich doing that, but it was fun.”
Today, he leads a team of about 12 riders from all over the country, hosts competitions locally, and competes internationally. He’s also written widely used guides on horseback archery instruction.
But even a modern-day warrior can’t overcome the explosive growth in the San Antonio-Austin corridor that’s pushing him out. And New Braunfels, the second-fastest-growing large city in the nation according to census figures, lies directly in its path.
Schlichting is a descendent of the first German immigrants who settled in the area and formed the town with Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels in 1845. His family farmed acreage given to them in a land grant – until recently.
Now, with the hay pastures and open land where Schlichting trains subdivided since his grandfather’s death, large parcels have been sold off and are being cleared for sprawling housing developments. The land nearby is blanketed with new rooftops, and heavy equipment is moving the earth just outside Schlichting’s property gates.
By December, Schlichting will have hauled his horses, targets, and other equipment to a valley 7,500 feet up in the forested mountains of northeastern New Mexico, where he plans to build a national training center.
“It’s more centrally located in the U.S., and we’re going to be up in the mountains so we can have a year-round riding,” he said. “We just got too crowded here and the city limits have moved in. New Braunfels has had such huge growth, and I wanted to move somewhere that’s more majestic and quieter and away from people.”
It’s a move he put off until he was sure that the sport was firmly cemented in the very state that has the highest population of horses in the country, Texas. Now, he says, “It’s here to stay. And then there are other people hosting competitions now, so I don’t have to host them.”
One of the most recent was the Texas International Archery Festival in McDade, north of Bastrop. In addition, MA3 lists four affiliated chapters in Texas, including a chapter started by one of Schlichting’s former students.
Though Schlichting plans to return to the area every eight weeks to conduct clinics on small paddocks of his father’s land, the team will travel to the Santa Fe-area school periodically for future training.
That includes a mounted archery student who is new to the sport, but not to horseback riding. Kaitlin Tucker, 28, started taking English riding lessons as a child and archery lessons while a student at Texas State University.
“I thought there’s gotta be some way that the two would be blended. And sure enough, I just started googling around and Trey’s website came up,” said Tucker, who as a 911 dispatcher with a variable schedule plans to care for the horses here as well as fly to New Mexico to keep up with her training.
Tucker’s experience in dressage and hunter-jumper competitions provided the foundation for mounted archery, she said. “Trey was able to help build me up from there. Little things that you really didn’t think about initially, based on those other previous English disciplines, really come over,” Tucker said, offering an example: “I forgot how to throw my weight around.”
Schlichting said he can train a horse for mounted archery in about six weeks. It takes much longer for an athlete to learn the sport, which forces riders to stay in balance and control the horse without using the reins.
“This is a sport that teaches you to be in harmony and balance with the horse and not have the horse balance you, because there’s nothing to hold on to,” he said. “Once you build a rapport with the horse and start riding with bodyweight and touch and you’re fully aware, they start to trust you.”
But Schlichting has not trained or broken horses since 2014 when he was bucked off a horse and severely injured. After being bedridden for two months and spending time in a wheelchair, Schlichting chose to focus on competing and training clinics. He only rides “safe” horses.
He plans to compete in Sokcho, South Korea, in late August then travel with the Mongolian team to that country for another contest. His horse will stay at home, however.
“Part of the zeitgeist of the sport is that I will share my horse with another rider from away,” Schlichting said. “When I go to Sweden or Hungary or wherever we’re going, I ride the horses they have available. And the horses in Korea are owned by the federal government because it’s part of their cultural heritage.”
At the urging of UNESCO in 2014, Schlichting said, he developed the U.S. Cultural Heritage Team, with equipment and colors that represent the first mounted archers in this country. The gear is reminiscent of what the Plains Indians used, and the navy blue shirts are in the style of an American West frontiersman with bold red sashes worn at the waist. The bow he helped design is an American flatbow that mimics the graceful silhouette of a bird in flight.
Not all those who compete in mounted archery are members of the cultural heritage team, and despite its growing popularity, many don’t know the sport exists. Horseback riders who get a taste of it, however, can’t stop, Schlichting said.
“If you study archery, it’s a pathway to Zen and a meditation,” he said. “Horses are similar. … It’s just a magical feeling.”
But as his hometown grows and gets squeezed by expanding cities to its north and south, the Land of Enchantment is clearly calling to him, his passion for mounted archery, and the wide-open spaces of his youth.
Schlichting believes his grandfathers would admire his pioneering spirit.