Katie Stearns, 26, is among the elite Mounted Martial Arts athletes in the U.S.A. Think horses, bows, arrows, and riding at a gallop while shooting large darts at a target. Mounted archery is a new sport, known best in Hungary and South Korea.
We talked by phone a couple times over the weekend. Stearns was living in Bend, Oregon, when she picked up a Kassai horse bow. She was 17. The bow came with a book by Kassai Lajos, Horseback Archery. Stearns says, “He’s a man in Hungary who started horseback archery, made it a modern martial art.
“I took the book to the guy I bought my arrows from. I asked if he knew anybody who was doing horseback archery. There was a man [Holm Neumann] who lived 15 minutes north of me. He was pretty much the only person on this side of the Mississippi who was practicing.
“Holm hosted a clinic by Lukas Novotny, an internationally renowned bowyer [Novotny holds mounted-archery clinics in Europe, North and South America]. He got me going with the horseback-archery part.
“I love riding. At first, mounted archery was something else to do with the horse, but then, the feeling, that first time, of nailing a bull’s eye at the gallop, on horseback...amazing.
“You get a lot of people who are fantastic archers, but the horse is their second thing. I wouldn’t call myself a fantastic archer, but I can ride the hell out of a horse. I can go to any country and ride any horse.”
In 2006, a year after taking up mounted archery, Stearns competed in the International Horseback Archery Competition in Sokcho, South Korea. “I won a bronze in Single Shot.”
Two years later she won two golds in two different events. “You get that perfect moment. On the double-shot [competition], targets are placed somewhat awkwardly. On one you have to shoot slightly forward, on the other you’re shooting slightly back. My horse was being obnoxious. He kept trying to rear. He reared up and smacked me in the face with my bow. I was pissed. And then they hit the gong and I just kicked him, just pushed him onto the course. Everything was total reaction — boom, boom, done. That first run was perfect; I got two bull’s eyes.
“In 2006, ’07, ’08, and ’09 I went to Korea and medaled every year. I helped set up a competition here in the U.S. in 2010. The next year I moved to Korea for five months to learn their other martial arts — sword, spear, and other weapons. This year, my father and I bought a ranch in Arlington, Washington.
“I was a tomboy, never got along with girls. Even today I have a lot more guy friends. Awhile back there were some things that happened in my life and I needed a place to go and these two women said that I could come down to [Southern Oregon] and live with them.
“I ended up hosting a weekend clinic with nine women. I remember looking at my list of people — usually it’s at least 50-50 men and women, sometimes more men, and I thought, Oh, my god, what am I going to do with all these women? It’s going to be catfight central. But, it wasn’t. It was incredible. They were housewives. At the end of the clinic many women shook me and said, ‘You need to do this.’ Many of them felt inspired. I never realized how much of an impact mounted archery had on my life.”
I like the niche-sport aspect. If you’re good you probably have met everyone else in the world who is good. And there’s the undeniable beauty of seeing an expert ride and shoot at full gallop. Since there’s little money to be had, the sport attracts people who care. And then there is Katie Stearns, a University of Oregon graduate in anthropology who found her way into mounted archery, and because of it, has traveled to Korea, Jordan, Brazil, Mongolia, and on to Turkey next month.
But what I like most is her ten-year plan, particularly running clinics on her ranch. Follows is an extract: “I would have one weekend set aside for cancer survivors, the next for at-risk youth. I am hoping to find grants or donations for women-empowerment weekends. Women can come and work together on getting their strength back, mentally and physically. Horseback riding and martial arts are empowering. They empower women to be confident, strong, and independent. Working with horses teaches you leadership, without force. Martial arts improve your physical health, as well as mental focus.”
What a great idea.
Katie’s stats: mountedarchery.net/; firstname.lastname@example.org; 360-435-1025.