Thursday, June 29, 2017

They Don’t Use Real Bullets, Do They?

Wednesday June 28 2017

That’s the first question I thought to ask, after I signed up for a Cowboy Mounted Shooting clinic. Or is it Mounted Cowboy Shooting. See? I didn’t even know what it was called.

I signed up on a whim, just because they seemed to be wanting more riders, and, since it was something new which I really knew nothing about, well, why not?

And since I really had no time at all to think about it or read up on it, I put it out of my mind until the bullet question popped in my head. No, a friend reassured, it’s some kind of blank with black powder. 

Which you could still injure or kill yourself with. I might shoot my foot, right? (No quick-drawing involved, I found later.) Or shoot my horse’s ear? Or faint from the heat (in Scottsdale in June, mind you), fall off my horse and shoot myself? But, no real bullets. Right. Good enough. 

All the sign up page said was, Experienced Riders Only, of which I suppose I fit into that category, and Helmets Okay, or something of that nature, of which I fit into that category, as I don’t get on a horse without a helmet. It didn’t say anything about being Calamity Jane, which fits as I don’t always hit the center of a target (or, indeed, the target) when I’m target shooting. It didn’t say anything about having to wear a Western outfit, which is fitting, as I am an endurance rider. Riding tights it would be, with my riding shoes and fringy half-chaps. After all, if the Pope came to a MCS clinic, nobody would expect him to ride in anything other than his Pope robes, right?

Since I knew nothing, at all, of this sport, I decided to dive headfirst into it with no preconceived notions (read: complete ignorance). I didn’t read up on it. I didn’t watch any videos, other than a quick re-viewing of the first couple of episodes of Bonanza, where the good Cartwright boys are chasing the bad guys on horses at full tilt and shooting, bang bang bang. 

The clinic opportunity was a bonus at the American Horse Publications conference. About 10 riders, from all imagined disciplines participated. Ross Hecox, managing editor of Western Horseman magazine, led a photography workshop. Excellent - any faux pas by shooting newbies would be duly recorded!

Clinic took place in 101* heat (did I mention Scottsdale in June?), but under the covered arena at the Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre in Queen Creek, Arizona. Giant fans with air conditioning distracted me from the withering heat, as did the iced tea with a tub of ice cubes.

Clinicians Kenny Lawson (of the Silver Dollar Ranch in California) and Dan Byrd (of Cave Creek, Arizona), both World Champion Cowboy Mounted Shooting competitors, brought trained horses and a sense of humor and patience for us pleasure riders, dressage riders, endurance riders, hunter-jumpers and Western show competitors.

According to Kenny’s wife Leann, Cowboy Mounted Shooting is the fastest growing horse sport in the U.S. The Lawsons recognized this training niche and successfully train horses and people for this sport (and other disciplines).

In the clinic we first learned the basics of cowboy mounted shooting equipment and gun safety, before strapping on our own holster and .45 caliber single action revolvers (yes, plural; you use 2 pistols) and tried our hand at shooting while walking past the balloon-on-a-stick targets on foot. 

“Technique, technique, technique, not speed,” the instructors stressed. “It all has to become automatic.” Draw, aim, cock-fire, cock-fire, (5 times), holster gun one, draw gun two, repeat.

The ammunition spray (my non-technical term!) is quite forgiving, proven by the fact that I hit 90% of the balloons I shot at. And, bonus, I did not shoot my foot or my horses’ ears! I only failed rather spectacularly (all day) at not looking down at my holster when I switched guns. “Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down,” Dan and Kenny kept reminding me. Of course I looked down, many times, because where did that hole for the gun keep going, anyway?

Next, racing (not!) the course on horseback and blasting at the balloons! The instructors followed each of us on the simple course, at a walk, or, when I wanted to get really adventurous, a jog. Bang! Bang! Bang! I actually hit most of the balloons. And of course looked down to holster my guns. But I looked pretty Bonanza-like, I’m sure, particularly in my endurance tights and purple helmet.

The funny thing about mounted shooting is this. We were all experienced riders. But the more we concentrated on shooting, the less we looked like we knew about riding, particularly me when I tried the roundy-round course. “Keep your arm straight, don’t cock yet, wait, fire at 90 degrees, wait, now.” Bang. “Watch your horse.” I was angling my horse way too close to the target. Correct the horse. “Stay focused on the next target.” Re-aim at the next balloon. Overcorrect my horse with my rein hand up high in the air. (Why?? I never ride like this at home.) “Pay attention to where you’re going, inside or outside the cones?” Correct my well-trained horse with just my legs, but forget I’m supposed to fire a gun. Oops, I already passed a target. Now my horse is steering herself inside the cones, since I am now giving her so many mixed signals, like a novice rider, that she has decided to help me out and choose her own path, and I pass another target. I’m trotting because I want to go faster than a walk, but that makes things come a whole lot faster. Now I can’t get the one gun holstered and have to look down (“Don’t look down!”) and then I can’t get the other gun out of its holster, and meanwhile I have figured that if I steer my horse outside the cones it gives me a little more time for shooting, then I accidentally signal her to canter, but then I can’t get a shot off because my thumb has slipped off the hammer improperly and did not cock, and, “Don’t cock your gun until you’re ready to fire,” well, you get the picture. And the pros do this at a sprint? And they have to execute a new and different pattern each time at a sprint??

I can see how the approach of doing it slowly, over and over and over, to establish the right steps and the right technique so that eventually everything comes automatic is the key, and I can see how this sport is addicting!

It was such a fun afternoon with some new friends and personable, entertaining clinicians, that I forgot how I hate the heat. And even though I rode like an amateur, I didn’t shoot myself or my horses’ ears. I can call my Cowboy Mounted Shooting day a success and hang up my revolvers. I’ll watch some mounted shooting competition on YouTube, and I’ll watch those Cartwright boys as they keep chasing the bad guys. And I’ll practice my riding skills on my endurance horses sans the guns!

*Thank you Marsha Hayes for the photos and video!*


  1. This is something I've always wanted to try. Since I have fired a gun on exactly one occasion, it should be amusing...

  2. Sounds like you had a lot of fun! We have a CMS club here that my husband wants to join - he finally found something that makes him want to get back on a horse! Actually, I would like to try it too. I think my yellow horse would be easy to train for this.

  3. Farah hid behind us the first time she was "exposed" to gun fire :-)