Bajutsu is the term used in Japanese martial arts to refer to horsemanship.  Skeletal remains found in Japan indicate that the horse existed there in prehistoric times, a fact that Japanese mythology corroborates. Even before the professional warrior class had been established, mounted fighting men roamed the country. Later as the classical warrior rose to decide the political issues that had divided the country, horsemanship was an inseparable part of his martial curriculum.

He who possessed a suitable mount gave visual evidence of his aristocratic background, and this element of prestige was an important factor in assuming leadership over other warriors. During the Kamakura period (1192-1333) the daily routine of the classical warrior reflected his profession at arms. He was under constant martial discipline, and much of his time was necessarily taken up with the practice of bajutsu, or horse art.

By means of the horse the bushi was able to use his weapons more effectively, in particular the bow and arrow, sword, spear, nagamaki or naginata. The need to ford streams and cross other bodies of water also led to the development of a branch of horsemanship known as sui-bajutsu, or water horse-art.

Though each bushi might accept the fact that it was his sword, not his horse, that generally saved the day for him in combat, nevertheless he devoted meticulous attention to kihon, or fundamentals, of riding. Norikata, or the correct manner of mounting, preceded all other training. Once in the saddle, the bushi knew the urgency of developing the loin strength to maintain for hours on end the posture necessary for swift riding.

And development of a seat that would provide a stable base from which to ride without holding the reins as he wielded his major weapons was an absolute condition of his profession.On the basis of historical records, the fifteenth-century Otsubo Ryū first systematized bajutsu. This led to the development of more than fifty different traditions.

Bajutsu originated in Mongolia. Through centuries, Mongols have had the reputation of formidable fighters and riders, although they used to ride on half-wild horses and without saddle and bridle, a simple leather lash being strapped around the horse’s neck.

Horses only started to be widely used in Japan around the 5th and 6th centuries. Japanese being of Mongol blood, soldiers who owned a horse (a nobility’s privilege since horses were rare and costly at the time) would be versed in military riding. Horses were a fashionable and valuable gift between Chinese and Japanese nobles of the time. Grand Samurai clans always had breeding stables, each with its own techniques and secrets. The Nambu clan was famous in all of Japan.

Some schools did specialize in individual or army fighting strategy and techniques. Bajutsu knowledge would include everything that a cavalryman (Chinese, Japanese or Western) should know about horses: breeding, riding, jumping, crossing rivers, diving from incredible heights, and training of riders (norikata) whose back had to stand long riding hours.

Riders had to stay in the saddle in every situation, and needed excellent seat to fight with sword, yari, naginata, bow and arrow, and resist infantrymen armed with special weapons such as long gaffs with sharp hooks, long Ta Chi swords and naginatas made for dismounting the rider or cutting off the horse’s legs.

The Japanese saddle was made of wood. For battle, the horse was protected with a light armor made of leather and steel and had a steel plate on the forehead. Samurais would ride with two reins that would be attached to loops on their armor during battle. They controlled the horse with their legs and body weight, copying the Mogolian techniques of riding in zigzag towards the enemy while shooting arrows.

Galloping on a horse and shooting with the bow was called Kisha. The break shoe stirrups, were made for water to drain out and attached to the saddle, because warring campaigns in Japan would imply a lot of wet riding (sui bajutsu), for crossing rivers, torrents or sea bays.

The physical training of riders included acrobatics and stunts as well as close combat techniques involving sutemis where a rider would sacrifice himself to drag the opponent down to the ground.

There were as well methods for approaching the enemy in complete silence: rolling up fabric around the bridle or placing the horse’s nose in a bag. Training of horses had a major importance. Horses had to jump, swim, or lay down. Training was taking place around the Uchi’s (clan) dojo. A large Uchi could have thousands of Samurais, a fortress, military camps, dojos, shooting ranges, and even lakes or water ponds for water training of horses and armored Samurais.

Japanese and Mongol riders were very skilled in acrobatics and stunt that were facilitated by the small size of horses, and by the saddle fitted with handles.

It should be noted that before the Nara period, sword were straight, and the curved shape of the Katana was invented to suit horse-riding battle. Later this shape was retained for various reasons after the disappearance of horses on battlefields.

Training often also took the form of games or jousting. The three favorite games were as follow.

YABUSAME: Shooting arrows at full gallop on three targets (representing the three kingdoms of Korea) with whistling arrows called Kaburaya. Today, there are only few remaining Yabusame schools, particularly from the Takeda-Ryu (Hosokawa-Ryu and Ogsawa-Ryu, both descendants of the Henmi family (Genji clan). Modern Yabusame is called Kisha-hasami-mono, and is performed during Shinto rites in autumn.

TOGASAGAKE: Long distance shooting from 80-100m (or short distance called kasagake) on a hat, with arrows tipped with a ball.

INUOIMONOI: Shooting on a running dog. Before the Heyan period, it was also performed on monkeys, deer, or dogs in a paddock, either with real arrows or with arrows tipped with a ball to spare the animal.

MODERN BAJUTSU: Bajutsu went through several declines due to civil wars in Japan, and to the expanding use of firearms around 1600. However, nobles still practiced, and when the Samurai cast was abolished in 1876, there were still over 50 bajutsu schools in Japan, the oldest one, Otsubo-Ryu dating from the 15th century.

Nowadays in the West, especially in Europe, Bajutsu is becoming an increasingly popular martial art. Master Hiroo Mochizuki, a descendant of Samurais and Soke of the Yoseikan Budo World Federation is an experienced horse rider and a veterinarian doctor. He has retied with tradition and modernized bajutsu techniques so that they can be practiced by anyone in riding clubs. Long bows have been replaced by short Mongolian bows, the targets and weapons have been modernized, but the basic techniques have remained the same.

Riders are trained in all the areas of horsemanship as well as fighting techniques, both on horseback and on ground. The ranking is done at four different levels (beginner/intermediate/advanced/superior) with Kyus and Dans just like in Yoseikan, up to the 5th dan. A ranking with national riding federations completes the technical program.

Stany Ledieu has been appointed as Bajutsu Technical Director. The “ecuries du Grand Royal” in Belgium have become a prominent training center for Bajutsu. In this stable, (where the Belgian National Mounted Police is trained) Stany Ledieu and his assistants Patrice, Olivier and Valerie care for people and horses alike towards the development of this great martial art.