Local Knowledge: Hard Ridin’, Straight Shootin’

“Rider!” The announcer shouts. Nostrills flaring and muscles primed, a single horse thunders toward a marked course. The rider has already drawn his revolver and trained his eyes on the first balloon target. Dirt flies as the horse speeds and turns perilously close to the ground while the rider fires five shots at five evenly spaced targets, holsters the gun, draws a second firearm and takes aim at five more. It’s over in less than 20 seconds.

Cowboy Mounted Shooting, one of the fastest growing equine sports in the world, is also one of the most exciting to watch. It may lack the nasty spills and beasts run amok of bull riding, but it supplants all that testosterone fury with graceful aggression in an astounding display of skill, beauty and coordination. Cowboys, Indians, soldiers and bandits have been shooting from horseback since guns were invented, using live ammunition and glass bottles as targets. Modern safety requirements dictate that balloons stand in for bottles and black powder blank cartridges replace live ammo, but the 1800s style .45 caliber single action revolvers used today are capable of producing clouds of smoke and a “crack” so loud riders and horses often wear earplugs. The modern evolution of Cowboy Mounted Shooting (CMS) can be traced to Jim Rodgers, an Arizona horseman and gun collector who has been fascinated with the Old West since childhood and was an early member of the Single Action Shooting Society, an organization dedicated to preserving the cowboy lifestyle. In the early 1990s, it dawned on Rodgers that balloons and blanks could lead the way to safe and entertaining mounted shooting, and by 1992, he had organized the first competitive CMS contest.

Today, as many as 5,000 men, women and youngsters compete in more than 400 Cowboy Mounted Shooting events across the United States, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand. Part time cowboys and cowgirls leave their day jobs as attorneys, geologists, vets and homemakers to compete in events from Maine to Arizona. Some contestants arrive in tricked-out horse trailers that would put a wealthy retiree’s Winnebago to shame; others haul their mounts in dusty rigs behind work-worn pickup trucks. An atmosphere of family and kinship pervades a Cowboy Mounted Shooting competition where moms and dads cheer on their youngsters and husbands and wives find a new way to bond. Contestants must wear traditional Western-style clothing, and many of the cowgirls dress for show as well as function. Others take the dress requirement all the way back to period-correct 1800s garb — shirts without collars, old-style hats and high-waisted pants with buttons. Snaps, zippers and Velcro are verboten. Regardless of what they wear, riders and horses put on an electrifying show from the minute they begin raising dust at the starting line till the wide-eyed ponies thunder to a stop at the end. With 50 possible patterns, competitors are seldom given the luxury of familiarity. Revolvers must be cocked each time they are shot while the rider races at breakneck speed toward one of 10 target balloons. A typical pattern can be run in 15 to 35 seconds.

Riders are scored on time and penalties can decimate a seemingly good tally. Lose five seconds for each missed balloon, five seconds for dropping your gun, 10 seconds for not running the course correctly and 60 seconds for falling off your horse, to say nothing of the ribbing you’ll take afterward. Divisions include men, women, senior, junior (ages 12-16) and wranglers (11 and under). Youngest competitors can either ride the same pattern as adults and shoot Hollywood cap pistols, or they may shoot a blank-loaded .45 at balloons from the ground with a parent at their side. Firearm safety and horse-handling skills are strictly monitored for both adults and children and range masters are in the arena at all times to insure safe riding and shooting. On an overcast day in May last year, 61 competitors gathered at the Townsend Ranch in Darby, Mont., to ride, shoot and see old friends. Once a big-boys-only sport, CMS is now friendly to women, children and seniors. As many women compete as men, and recently Washingtonian Kenda Lenseigne not only won the ladies overall competition in 2008, she outshot the top man’s score.

“In the early days, people assumed that men would dominate the sport because they generally had more firearm experience and were bigger and stronger than women,” says Brady Carr, executive vice president of the CMS association. “Well, you know, top notch ladies have come up in the sport and they are extremely accomplished horse people. The men are standing up and taking notice.” Pretty 11-year-old Marias Blundell, decked out in pink and sitting on her 18-year-old Quarter horse Mr. Nickers, fetchingly shod in matching hues, wears an IPOD-looking device on her belt next to her cap gun. “Nah-ah, she says, it’s not music, I don’t need music here. It’s my insulin pump.” Marias, her parents Charlene, a geologist, and Stuart, head of business development for a software company, have escaped their daily lives and driven to Darby from Missoula. This is Charlene’s second shoot, and before trying the sport, she’d never handled a gun. “It’s a bit nerve-wracking, but a good stress reliever,” she says. “It’s just you, your horse and the clock.” With short cropped hair and a nose jewel, 20-something Wendy Bowman from Salmon, Idaho, looks like a displaced city girl till she dons her cowboy hat, adjusts her holsters and mounts up. “My dad calls me the ‘Fly-By Cowgirl’,” says Wendy with a laugh. “I live two completely different lives — traveling all over the U.S. for work, then I come home to Idaho to ride and now I’m here to compete with my dad.” If Wendy moves the cowgirl stereotype into the 21st Century, women like Dee Dee Tritchter and Janet Smith give it a glamorous panache worthy of the Sundance Film Festival. Forty-eight-year-old Janet wears a rich coral shirt, bright blue bandana and matching jeweled pigtail holders. Her Appaloosa, Phantom, has tack-bling to match. Janet has competed in rodeos and Western equestrian speed events as long as she can remember and started mounted shooting in 2001.

“This sport is reminiscent of the Old West and I love it,” Janet says. “I feel like I’m part of it when I’m riding a fast horse and shooting my guns. I love my guns. To me, they’re like having fine jewelry.” With a smile as wide as her home state of Texas, 49-year-old Dee Dee is decked out in a peach colored Western shirt, buckskin chaps, a wheat-toned hat and diamond earrings. Even the saddle blanket on her quarter horse, Dunny, coordinates perfectly. Gary Trichter, Dee Dee’s husband, Texas attorney by day, cowboy shooter on the weekends and frequent Buffalo Bill impersonator, took up mounted shooting when he married Dee Dee. “I love to ride,” the bearded 57-year old says. “Not everybody chases points in this sport — it’s exciting, fast-paced, and gives me the same kind of rush as flying. Only when you crash, you don’t fall as far. It’s a good way to fly.”

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