Mounted archery program empowers youths and adults
By Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Prince was not the first option, but when Arwen Adams laid eyes on the white-and-grey maned Gypsy Cob, she knew he was her heart horse.
Adams had traveled with her family to Missouri from their farm in Tennessee to buy a horse. Her father, Rob Adams, wanted one with a good demeanor since his 10-year-old daughter was a novice rider. They looked at one steed, then Prince came out, and Arwen fell in love with him. She bathed him at the site where he was born, and, a few months later, on her birthday, Prince made the trip east to his new family.
Not long after, Arwen made an unusual inquiry of her father. She was on the archery team at school and had become bored with it. Could she shoot a bow and arrow while she was riding Prince? “I said, ‘Honey, I don’t think that’s a thing,’” Rob recalls with a chuckle. “So, we Googled it out of curiosity, and I said, ‘Oh, heavens, it’s a thing.’”
He is relating this story on the 10- acre family farm — they’ve relocated near Ashland, Va. — while Prince’s hoofs clomp in the background and Arwen unleashes arrow after arrow in the form that has made her the 23rd ranked mounted archer in the country at the age of 14.
“I fell in love with it, I stuck with the sport, I’m still doing it and I love doing it,” Arwen says.
Whether Arwen is riding Prince on a 90-meter competition course or a 60-meter stretch her father built next to a menagerie of farm animals, she is engaging in one of the world’s oldest forms of martial arts.
Seventh-century B.C. Assyrian warriors are generally considered the world’s first horse archers, having ditched chariots during warfare in favor of something faster and nimbler.
Arwen is decidedly less imposing than the Assyrians, slight of stature, diffident toward breakfast, intrigued by math and engineering, and sporting a black Venom T-shirt that showcases one of her favorite Marvel comic antiheros.
Not long after she got Prince, she came across a flyer in a tack store in Tennessee advertising a clinic held by Elizabeth Tinnan, one of the top names nationally in horse archery, who is now a mentor. And the warrior label became just as applicable 28 centuries later.
Arwen rides for Heart of a Warrior Mounted Archery, a club and nonprofit that she and her family founded to promote the empowering nature of the sport. It’s one of about three dozen clubs under the umbrella of the Mounted Archery Association of America, which endorses and sponsors tournaments and training events across the country.
Heart of a Warrior held its first major competitive event April 2-3 in Doswell, Va., with nationally ranked archers from across the U.S. competing in shooting and riding events at Meadow Event Park, fittingly the birthplace of Secretariat, the great Triple Crown champion.
ThThe permutations are endless, but most mounted archery courses are 90 meters. Using a traditional bow, Arwen can unload six shots in that distance at ground and tower targets — three from the front, one from the side and two facing rear.
In addition to marksmanship, horses accumulate points depending on how fast they travel; 14 seconds is the threshold. They get a speed bonus that can be multiplied depending on how many targets their riders hit.
“I fell in love with it, I stuck with the sport, I’m still doing it and I love doing it.” – Arwen Adams
There is a tradeoff between speed and accuracy, considering that riders are trying to aim a bow while using their knees as shock absorbers to minimize movement. The sport is egalitarian, too; no special breed mount is required. “We’ve seen people with mules,” says Angie Adams, Arwen’s mother and de facto administrator of the club.
It adds up to a sense of community. At an event, if a rider lacks a horse, there’s always one available for loan or rent. “We were in Florida with a lady from California who borrowed a horse so she could ride,” Angie says. “That’s one of the things we like about it — everybody tries to work it out so people can compete.”
MORE THAN TARGET PRACTICE
Prince made a very fine unicorn; a simulated one, of course. Rob attached a horn to the horse’s head so Prince could play the part of a unicorn as a young girl was treated to her wish of becoming a fairy princess for a day.
Heart of a Warrior has a youth component that the Adamses started in Tennessee and brought with them to Virginia — using farm animals in a therapeutic way to empower kids with particular needs.
Rob, a strategic manager for an animal health company, had experience with animals and with giving. He did overseas mission work for about eight years in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where he helped to develop ecotourism programs.
“Part of that was working with orangutans, turtles, sea turtles and things like that. What I became infamous for, and this may be where Arwen gets it, was catching crocodiles and relocating them,” he laughs. “We actually caught over a hundred crocodiles and relocated them while I was there.”
Now, the Adamses work one-on-one with youths who visit the farm to hug friendly mini donkeys, listen to geese squawk and check out tortoises, turkeys, iguanas and Irish wolfhounds. Children with challenges dress up as cowboys and princesses, and just about everything in between. Arwen says the nonprofit honors her late grandfather, who also had a small, charitable foundation.
“I think our animals, in general, can empower people and the word empower just became so central to what we do,” Rob says. “We’re not certified therapists. However, what we do is we simply bring families and children and youth out here and we find ways to empower them in order to face the challenges that they have.”
EXPANDING THE SCOPE
When it comes to empowerment, though, shooting a bow from the saddle of a horse brings a singular rush. That is Erin Erickson’s conclusion, and she should know.
Owner and operator of the Rockin’ E Ranch in Warrenton, N.C., south of the Virginia state line, Erickson has been involved in just about every aspect of equine sports during her career — reining, training, dressage, barrel jumping and cow work.
In 2021, she brought in Tinnan, the top archer, for a clinic. Impressed with the talent and drive of Erickson’s students, Tinnan suggested she reach out to the Adamses about their mounted archery club, two hours to the north.
The groups practiced together, alternating sites, and then Erickson decided to come along for more than the ride. She picked up a bow for the first time in April 2021 and got hooked. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to be taking these kids places, I’ve got to learn how to do it myself, ’” she says. “It’s the one thing that caught my interest that I’m good at and want to keep doing.”
Erickson’s students attended their first competition in June 2021, with Rob and Arwen teaching them the ins and outs. True to the spirit of Heart of a Warrior, some of her students at Rockin’ E Ranch have challenges or special needs. But she has seen those disappear with the zing of an arrow.
“Even if they have something going on, they get on a horse, they get the bow and arrow, they hit a target and it just goes away,” she says. “It teaches them to believe in themselves. It gives them a goal and they have a blast, whether they’re actually winning or not.”
A FEW LAUGHS
To Arwen, the teamwork with the North Carolina branch and the spirit of Heart of a Warrior are just as important as her national ranking. Probably more so. “I don’t think about it a lot,” she says of her place on the leaderboard.
“Normally, I just think about what I’m doing here and the team that I’ve created because I want them to eventually become ranked as well. They just started around eight months ago and my dad is their coach, but I am there to help him. Usually, I’m practicing alongside them.”
A student at The Carmel School in nearby Ruther Glen, Arwen maintains a regular routine on the backyard course that Rob set at two-thirds of the standard distance to sharpen her timing.
But it’s just as important to keep Prince trained on other skills, like riding without a bridle, so he does not become a one-trick pony. It is a pattern she has kept since she earned credits doing homework, housework and farm chores before her father let her claim ownership of the horse.
“Get him in tune, work on him, no reins, just a little piece of rope around his neck, riding around and teaching him to do certain things, getting him to be soft,” she says. “He’s my pride and joy and that has nothing to do with archery.”
And Prince is also her confessor. For as mature and unflappable as Arwen appears, she gets butterflies before an event.
“If I get nervous, he gets nervous. I can feel his emotion and he can feel mine. So, if I’m going through something and I suddenly see that his ears are forward or he’s looking at something weird, I start going through things in my mind and I start telling him stories,” she says.
“I start telling him jokes and I start laughing myself. And once I start laughing, I feel him getting better. I feel him being confident again.”
For more information, visit heartofawarriorinc.com.