You’ve heard of western pleasure and barrel racing, but what about cowboy mounted shooting? In this three-part series, Kristen Kovatch introduces us to lesser-known western sports.
If you’re watching a western pleasure or horsemanship class, it’s hard to remember that this particular discipline was born and raised by career cowboys who earned their living in the saddle. The gemstones and glitz are certainly a far cry from the open range. At the other end of the spectrum, however, sub-disciplines are developing that take western riding to the opposite extreme. Basically, if you can think it, a competition exists for it. I’m choosing three of these “new” disciplines to spotlight for three weeks.
It’s hard to justify that cowboy mounted shooting is really making the most of a necessary cowboy skill. Typically real cowboys were not galloping around shooting at targets, despite what Hollywood Westerns would like you to think. Regardless, it’s one of the fastest-paced and fastest-growing disciplines in western riding: the American Quarter Horse Association offered the first-ever World Championships in March, in conjunction with the fifth Versatility Ranch Horse World Championships.
The competitions are fairly simple: competitors ride a pattern with 10 balloons on stakes. Riders shoot the first five balloons in the pattern, holster their gun, draws a second gun and shoots the final five. The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) uses .45 single-action revolvers and they always shoot blanks—no live ammunition at any recognized event. The fastest time wins, with faults assigned for missed targets.
Quarter horses are required for AQHA-recognized events, but any breed is welcome in CMSA events. The CMSA emphasizes both good horsemanship and marksmanship for obvious reasons. In the youth division, riders use a cap gun and then shoot targets with a .45, dismounted. Attire for the event typically includes jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, chaps or chinks, and a cowboy hat. The CMSA website also states that the “old time style” is also appropriate and should include “shirts without collars, and high-waisted pants with buttons, not zippers, and an old style cowboy hat.” Imagining people thundering about shooting guns while wearing dusters and punchy cowboy hats originally made my tacky-o-meter fly right off the charts until I remembered things like foxhunting and formal sidesaddle. To each his own.
Anyone who has ever experienced the joys of bolting, spooking, bucking or rearing horses thanks to surprising or loud sounds is probably wondering at this point how the horses tolerate having guns shot just over their ears. I am not personally familiar with the training practices for mounted shooting horses, but I did come across this videowhich shows the horses loping quietly through the pattern, responsive to their riders, even demonstrating a lovely quiet lead change. I expected to see hot and barely-controlled horses similar to what you see on occasion at rodeos—this was a pleasant surprise.
The sport seems to be a cross between a gymkhana for grown-ups and a western costume drama. A little tacky? Maybe. Fast-paced and exciting? Definitely. In the end, a lot of horseback riding competitions are both tacky and exciting, so cowboy mounted shooting just follows along in a history of other such sports.
Am I cut out for it? I have zero hand-eye coordination (there’s a reason I ride.) My cow horse is a great little mare but also a little flighty. On the other hand, there’s truth in what my wise old cowboy friend Dick Knapp says: “you can shoot off any horse in the barn!… once.”