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Horse Archery: Is it in your GENES?

Did you ever wonder why you want to ride horses? Or, even more, why do you want to do horseback archery? Well, for some people it might be written into your DNA.

My whole life it's seemed like something was pulling me towards horse archery. Little four year old me was using birthday wishes to wish for a horse. In elementary school I would bring home sticks from the trees at school and tie shoe strings on them to make bows. This is the same story I've heard from so many horse riders and archers. Like a sheep dogs urge to chase sheep, it seems like horse archers have an instinctive draw towards horses and archery.

Turns out, it might be for the same reason as sheep dogs! In a 2013 study published by Nature Magazine (1) it was shown that the experiences of your predecessors can get encoded into your DNA. (Anyone who has bred border collies or cow horses is going "well duh!" right now.) In this study, researchers took mice and exposed them to the scent of cherry blossoms, and at the same time delivered an electric shock.

Reasonably, the mice began to be afraid every time they smelled cherry blossoms. What is surprising is that even several generations down the line, the great grandchildren of these mice still were afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms. Even though they had never been electrocuted, their DNA had encoded this information into them. This discovery of epigenetics could go on to explain why some people have a higher risk of heart disease and mental illness. It can also explain far less serious things like behavior predisposition, and natural talent.

As an instructor, I used to think "There is no such thing as talent, only hard work," but after years of teaching beginners, I can definitely say some people have a natural knack for things more than others. (Of course, natural ability only gives you an initial leg up. The rest is all hard work!) Some people pick up the bow for the first time, hold it upside down, shakilly drawing the arrow back and receive a hearty introduction to string slap, and others pick up the bow and shoot like their body remembers. It's with these people I continually ask "Are you sure you haven't done archery before?" And they always say the giveaway phrase "Well when I was a kid I would make bows out of shoe strings and sticks."

Of course there's no accounting for horse sense either. When some people inherently understand a horse's language and others need an interpreter, it makes me wonder, who down your line rode horses? Horse riding and archery have been around for thousands and thousands of years, and at one point, horse archery was used to conquer a huge portion of the world. So its reasonable to assume that for many people some ancestor rode horses in an army, on a farm, or maybe one of your ancestors was part of the famous Mongol horde.

Theres no way to know for sure if the instinct we have towards horses and archery are based in epigenetics, or something more elusive and spiritual. We can observe that the horse bug tends to run in families etc. For me, the biggest evidence of a genetic role is the question I ask every one of my new students: "Why, of all things, do you want to do horse archery?" And so many of them say "I don't know. I just have always wanted to."

Just like asking a border collie "Why do you want to herd sheep?" He doesn't know. Perhaps there's something whispering in our genes, some untapped memory in our cells longing to be activated. For so long horse archery hasn't been available to do, but now those dormant skills passed down generation to generation are ready to get out. The sheep dog pup saw sheep for the first time, and he is ready to GO!


Dias, B. G. & Ressler, K. J. Nature Neurosci. (2013)

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