Destination: “Mystic Pines” – the name itself being a promise for adventure. I make my way up into the north east mountains of New Mexico. The road already took me past historic Las Vegas, NM, where Billy the Kid, famous outlaw of the Wild West, was known to be jailed multiple times. Now it leads me further away from civilization, into the wilderness. What I am looking for in this remote area is a World Horseback Archery Federation (WHAF) training and testing facility founded by Trey Schlichting. Having heard a fair deal of exciting stories about this place, I am jumping to finally get to see it with my own eyes.
I am not the only visitor. A private competition is held this weekend and a carefully limited number of participants are already at the venue preparing their equipment. The atmosphere is quite special. Due to the pandemic there have been hardly any events, with everyone being self-quarantined for months. It is clear to see that the archers feel blessed to be back in the game, respectfully keeping their distance and the surroundings as safe as possible.
Isabella Baratti, age 16, from San Diego, CA
The competition consists of different elements:
A Texas Hunt Course: Designed by Trey Schlichting, the rider has to lead his horse to the targets on his own, no barriers are helping him guide his steed. He may choose the order in which to shoot the targets himself, but has to be back at the finish line without crossing the allowed time limit.
An Australian 3 Shot Course: A track designed by Katrina Kruse especially for beginners. Two targets are facing in opposite directions, forming a front and a back shot. The rider may choose to ride slowly and still gain target points. The idea of this track is to encourage accuracy before speed.
A challenging Cross Country Track: A classic Hungarian Track with its almost meditative continuity. Nine runs on a straight track of 90 m with a single target-tower in the middle make this one a real test for focus and durability. Faces filled with concentration, the sportsmen and women race down the tracks, loosing their arrows at the targets. With my camera at the ready I enjoy the scene and the feeling of hoof-beats shaking the ground.
Hunter Matthews, age 21, took home 1st place
Hunter Matthews, aged 21 from Mora, New Mexico, who has been riding and shooting for only less than six months under Trey’s tutelage, proudly takes home the 1st place award. All the money collected as competition fees is paid back out in prizes.
The adventure doesn’t end with the competition though. Our host Trey takes us up the mountains to shoot at hanging milk jugs and the GONG course. While the archers enjoy the very special practice, we are all feeling the straining of our muscles as we slowly make our way to the top. The altitude of 7500 ft above sea level doesn’t let itself go unnoticed. To my surprise I realize that my condition doesn’t meet the standards I had set for it in my mind. Panting, I ask Trey about the elevation and its effect on horses. “Horses coming to this elevation for the first time are able to adapt in three to four days. Being animals of prey, they have the ability to dump red blood cells from the spleen into their blood stream when they encounter low oxygen environments under the stress of physical activity. By being trained or staying in high altitudes, this effect can even be increased. Generally speaking, the horses used for Mounted Archery are athletes and in top physical condition. That means they adapt in mere days whereas it can take human athletes several weeks or as long as a year depending on age and physical fitness,” Trey replies.
One of the fortunate people who made it to train at Mystic Pines during the lockdown is Sarah Velilchko. She was travelling as a wardrobe supervisor for the “Hamilton” Tour, a renowned musical, before the pandemic hit. Now being familiar to the place, she guides me through the ravines of the mountains to a spectacular Hunt course. Over twenty archery targets of life-sized animals are melting into the shadows of the towering pine trees. As we progress on the track, sneaking along the path with our bows always at the ready, we encounter my new favorite target yet: a 3D boar held up in the air by a wire by a construction between the trees. By releasing a lever it soars down a hill, giving the impression as if it was actually running. Intuition and speed are required to hit this target, a fun challenge of the unusual kind.
“My stay here at Mystic Pines has been soul-rejuvenating,” my guide Sarah says, skillfully hitting every rubber animal. Especially the combination of archery and horseback riding fascinated her: “There’s nothing like galloping through an open field with bow in hand, surrounded by stunning scenery and like-minded friends.”
Walking back to the house, we notice the fragrant smell of authentic New Mexico food filling the air. Clebert Garcia from Albuquerque, NM, has been preparing a real cowboy style treat for us: Homemade Posole, Tamales and Carne Adovada .
As the delicious dinner is being devoured, fun and interesting stories are exchanged along with thoughts on Horseback Archery and Misty Pines.
Clebert Garcia, our magnificent cook, acts in Old West and Civil War re-enactments and as a stunt rider and wrangler in films. He got into Horseback Archery only two years ago, despite also having an auto immune disorder known as ASPx in which the body attacks its own joints.
“I live with constant pain in all of my joints,” Clebert tells us. “Each and every one of my disks in my back have degenerated. One of the most important things for me is to stay active and Horseback Archery helps me a lot with this. It requires the mind to focus, yet be calm and the body to be alert, yet relaxed at all times. The resulting Zen effect enables me to see past the pain.
I am not one for sharing such personal information. But if it helps encourage someone to try a sport that otherwise they may think are not physically up to, I am happy to share my experience. Just try it, you may be surprised!”
The youngest and first time competitor Annabelle (12), whose mother has driven her all the way from Austin, TX to Misty Pines, NM multiple times, each trip more than 13 hours long, tells us, “Mystic Pines is my happy place – a perfect combination of beauty, friendship, fun and of course incredibly valuable training that pushes me to the edge of my abilities every time!”
Isabella Baratti, age 16, has studied with Trey for almost 4 years
Training with Trey Schlichting for almost four years, Isabella Baratti (16) from San Diego, CA, has been staying on the ranch for the last month. Isabella’s mom Junie told me, “Trey has been a great mentor and male role model in her life. She has built so many great memories of working on the ranch, training and building friendships and can’t wait for her next school break to be able to come back.”
Gracie Allee Ledoux, now 18, began with HBA at age 14
Trey’s student Gracie Allee Ledoux started training HBA with him at the age of 14. Being extremely talented and even more dedicated to the sport, she acquired great skill over the last four years and is bound to impress anyone who has the opportunity to watch her in action. Now, at 18, she is teaching HBA and HBA clinics herself. As I ask her about her thoughts about the facility, she replies, “Mystic Pines is my home. Wonderful friends, family, horses, mountain views with smells of the forest, the beauty of the sky from sunrise to sunset and the endless starry nights bring constant peace and joy to me.”
Trey Schlichting, the founder of Mystic Pines, is a wealth of knowledge in the sport and history of Horseback Archery. I have met him several times before throughout my HBA related travels around the globe. When asked why he chose to settle down at this particular place, he says, “Mystic Pines is a realization of my dreams coming to life. It has a magical healing environment, being surrounded by snow capped mountain peaks and forest. Here I can ride, shoot, and share my passion with athletes from around the world.”
Laughter and banter end the evening while Kristin, Trey’s fun and beautiful wife, teaches us the ancient Korean game of “Yut Nori”. The game consists of a combination of skill, strategy, luck, with a bit of feigned indifference. After this intense day full of Horseback Archery and passionate discussions, the playful competition elegantly fosters our freshly woven bonds of friendship.
As I pack my car early the next morning, having sent out all well-wishes, I take a moment to look across the valley. The mountains on the other side are shimmering slightly with the first rays of sunshine touching the snow capped peaks. I take a deep breath and despite the cold, crisp air a feeling of warmth and calmness envelopes me. I will miss wandering the forest of pine and Ponderosa trees and their soft scent of vanilla and pine, the people and the animals.
It was an honor to be invited to this union to see and feel for myself the emotions, feelings, passion and respect of this close knit family of archers in a beautiful, enchanting setting. Their wonderful hospitality have made this experience unforgettable.
Mystic Pines is also in the works to offer Air B&B and primitive camping. Not yet set up fully, they plan to offer Martial Archery training for interested guests and personal Horseback Archery clinics for 2021. Their intention and long-term goal is to provide a training facility for Horse Archery athletes and professionals such as actors and stunt men at a reduced rate.
For more information on the facilities please contact Trey Schlichting at: 210-860-5353
Many thanks to Vincent McLean, left, for producing this story and amazing photos, as well as Anne Dohrman, right, who edited the story.