Updated: Jul 1, 2020
By Michelle Elise Shock & Kendall Wells, professional SAG-AFTRA stunt performers, and teachers in their disciplines: Horsemanship and Combat.
They offer high-quality action performances, equine and combat training, and action choreography for projects through their company Equerry & Ace.
Equerry & Ace Website: https://www.equerryace.com
Preparing a horse and performer for mounted combat work can be a pain staking process, which can reward you with pure poetry in motion! It takes an extraordinary amount of patience, perseverance, sensitivity, & compassion.
Having the right training available to translate both your riding & combat work into a melding of worlds, sets the tone for having either success or failure. This not only stands for performance quality but for the quality of experience you and your horses will walk away with.
Here at Equerry & Ace, our first step to preparing for mounted combat work with our horses is to make sure our animals have proper desensitization to weaponry. This can include auditory desensitization (to the sounds of impacting swords, sticks, whips, or armour), visual desensitization (to arrows flying, swords swinging, action on the ground or in the distance, props, costumes, or horses in close proximity), and even environmental desensitization (such as camera equipment, exposure to new settings or surroundings, & changing of light).
Horses are prey animals which respond to predatory threats. Almost always, their first reactions to new or threatening things will be fear. After fear, they experience curiosity, play, and finally indifference. It's important to work slowly and steadily through exposing them to new objects, surroundings, and actions. This allows them to confidently reach the stage of indifference with each task given.
Positive reinforcement is always the most successful method for desensitization, rather than trying to correct or "punish" negative reactions. We at Equerry & Ace do not want our horses to associate fear or pain responses with what we do, but rather trust our trainers and performers, and view the work as something to enjoy doing. It only takes one traumatic experience (from the horse's perspective) to undo years of confidence building. It can then take much more time to rebuild that trust. We want to create solid, safe, confident rides, not dangerous ones.
The next step, is making sure our Equerry & Ace horses and performers understand patterns and steering. As you can imagine, when your hands are preoccupied with weapons, you are limited as to how much direction you can give. You are limited in the amount of steering you can do with your hands and reins. While reins should never be your sole aid for steering in any riding discipline, with mounted combat, it can very often be eliminated entirely (if not just partially).
We prefer to train our horses to "leg yielding", which allows our riders to cue our horses by utilizing different points of leg and seat contact (by either increasing or decreasing pressure). This cues them to speed up, slow down, stop, and move in the desired direction. This allows our performers to focus on balancing their upper bodies with core strength and to free their hands for weapons use.
One of our favorite Equerry & Ace exercises which we use to assist our horses and riders in combining different tasks (leg yeilding, weapons contact, performer proximity, as well as camera frame awareness) is the figure 8 pattern with combat contact. Our riders will start on opposite ends from one another, cross down a diagonal path towards center line, and meet with weapons contact in the middle (as they cross one another on the center line).
After this contact point, they continue through the pattern where they then complete a 180 degree/half circle to change directions, head down the opposing diagonal path towards center once again, meeting in the middle with weapons contact, and complete the figure 8 pattern with a 180 degree half circle to change directions. Riders then hault their horses as they return to their original starting points. This is illustrated in our video.
It's very important that all combat performers understand, not all weapons techniques translate to mounted weapons work. What you learn for weapons work must also consider your horse's contribution to the performance. What was once your footwork on the ground is now replaced by a 1200+ lb animal beneath your seat and between your legs.
Your horse essentially becomes your lower body. It's safe to compare this unison to that of a centaur. Your understanding of spacial awareness for strikes now greatly changes as well. You are not just focusing on the 8 angles of the weapons you use but you must be aware of the 6 angles of movement your horse operates on as well.
Weapons operate on the lines drawn such as up, down, left, right, and diagonal. Horses movement can only go forward, backwards, left, right, up, and down. Even if your horse is moving in a diagonal like direction, you are still only cueing your horse to move either forward and left or forward and right, combined. So, your eight angles of striking must now include an awareness for your horse's movement and how you are cueing them.
This includes being aware of any sudden changes of directions due to spooks, rears, bucks, spins, and bolts. This is another example as to why proper desensitization and confidence building is so important for any horse whom is used for mounted combat.
No matter what you pursue for your training with horses and mounted combat, or what amazing performance you book next involving these wonderful animals, please, always make sure that the methods that you and your team members are using are prioritizing the welfare of the animals, first and foremost.
Educate yourselves on proper training techniques, animal welfare regulations within our unions (or even through different equestrian organizations and federations).
Take the time to gain a better understanding of equine behavior & psychology. They deserve to enjoy these experiences as much as we do!