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by Kim and Kari Baker


Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Cowboy Mounted Shooters:

Aim to have Fun

by Kim and Kari Baker

Do you often hanker to slip into authentic western wear, fork your horse and travel back in time to when the west was truly wild? If you enjoy fast action events such as barrel racing and pole bending, then you’ll think (CMSA) Cowboy Mounted Shooting is - well, a blast!

CMSA is an exciting blend of exhibition style Wild West shooting, and a form of gymkana race against the clock. In this sport, you must skillfully rein your horse through a stage of ten balloons – course of fire – all the while retaining control of your horse. Sound simple? Then how about adding the task of cocking, firing a gun, holstering it then drawing a second revolver, as you and your horse travel through a course of balloons and barrels. Now add to this; you and your horse will be timed so must perform the task at a respectable speed. Each missed shot will add an additional five seconds to your time, as will a knocked over barrel. This event is much tougher than you might think. In fact, the demands on both horse and rider are much more than they first appear.

How to play

Each rider, clad in period dress of the 1800’s, carries two .45 caliber single-action revolvers loaded with black powder blanks, and rides an established course that consists of two sets of five balloons.

At the starting line, gun in hand, the rider charges across the timing beam at a canter and proceeds to engage the first five balloons. This first set of balloons will challenge the rider’s ability to skillfully rein their horse along an indirect route. With over 70 existing ride patterns, line of travel will vary from serpentines to circles as horse and rider maneuver through gates and around barrels.

Depending on the pattern and set rules, the rider will need to determine his or her best line of attack. This means making personal judgments considering speed, turns, change of leads, as well as sustaining a sufficient distance from their targets, all the while cocking and shooting at the balloons.

Immediately after the fifth shot is fired, the now empty revolver is returned to a holster, and as the rider rounds the end barrel, a second revolver is drawn. Most often the second set of five balloons is placed in a straight line on a direct route for the finish line.  This is called the run-down. At this point the rider shifts his horse into high gear. The tricky part here is that the rider must not go faster than he or she is adept at working the gun.

The Shootist

Unlike most other equine events where only the rider’s horsemanship skills are judged, the upshot of this competition is also aimed at the rider’s shooting skills. While an intermediate to advanced level of equestrian skills is advantageous, it’s not essential. In fact, kids and novice riders are encouraged to participate.

This means that there is a class for you to join in and compete. The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) has created a class ranking system that’s based on the competitor’s riding and shooting abilities. Competition for men, ladies, and seniors are each categorized into five levels. Everyone begins at the entry level, and must meet specific prerequisites to move up through each preceding class level.

Juniors aged 12 to 15 years, share the same ranking system as the adults, but a special Wranglers Class exists for kids’ under12 years of age. They ride the same set course of balloons as the other contestants, but do not shoot a gun while on horseback. Once they’ve completed the pattern on horseback they are then allowed to shoot five balloons under adult supervision while standing on the ground.

The Horse

While most of the light horse breeds are suitable for cowboy mounted shooting, the western stock breeds dominate the field. “Bloodlines aren’t as important as the horse’s athletic ability or attitude,” says trainer and horse breeder, Larry Townsend, of Townsend Ranch, near Darby, Montana. “Mounted shooting is very hard on the stability of the horse. Keeping your horse calm yet competitive is tough, and the more competitive you are the more difficult it is.

“Your horse should be sound and in good physical condition, as he must be able to handle up to four wide-open runs in a single day’s event. He also needs to be very well trained,” adds Townsend. Just as in any other equine related event, the better the horse is able to execute basic reining skills, leg cues, and speed control, the more success the rider will enjoy.

Training Methods

How do you go about training your horse to become a competitive mounted shooting horse? We’ve learned that there is no set rule on how to go about it. In fact, there may be as many training techniques as there are trainers. But, before bringing out the heavy artillery your first consideration is to your horse’s well-being.

“The first step I take in training a horse to tolerate gunfire is to teach it to accept earplugs,” says Townsend. It’s imperative that your horse not be ear shy, so your first line of attack is to get your horse used to his ears being handled. Once he is comfortable with his ears being touched all over, inside and out, your next step is to introduce him to the earplugs.

“We put the horse in a safe environment then put the earplugs in the horse’s ears. Even though he’s used to having his ears handled, he’s likely to shake his head in an attempt to dislodge them. You can either stand by patiently, replacing the earplugs each time the horse shakes them out, or you can use a large pony tail band around each ear to effectively hold the earplugs in place.”

Once your horse tolerates the earplugs you’re ready to commence shooting. This is where there are so many personal choices to be made.

One method of training your horse to accept gunfire is to work your horse at one end of an arena, while at the other end of the arena a helper fires off a gun. Rather than trying to restrain your horse, allow him to speed up if he needs to then bring him back to walk and have your helper shoot off another round. As your horse becomes used to the sound of the gun, begin working in circles at the center of the arena, until you are satisfied with the results, then progress to the same end of the arena as your helper.

The next step is for the rider to handle the gun himself. Once your horse tolerates gunfire shot from off his back at a walk you can begin to speed things up. First at a trot then lope and finally at a gallop. If he becomes overly excited at any one gait bring him back to the previous gait before advancing again in speed.

While most trainers use the above method, or a version of it, the same results are obtainable even out riding the trails. “I take my single action colt .45 with blanks on a ride in the mountains. After a few hours of riding I find a long ridge and put my horse into a lope. When my horse starts to tire, I break him down to a walk and shoot a round. If he reacts to the gunfire, I lope him longer, then break down to a walk and shoot again. I continue this until he doesn’t react to the gunfire at a walk. After a month of this I shoot at a trot, then the lope, always looking for the same desired result,” explains Townsend.

“Any exposure to gunfire is extremely helpful.” Many prefer to start off with their horses loose in a pasture or corral where the horses are free to move at liberty. Another choice is to begin with the relatively quiet pop of a cap pistol, then progressing to .22 blanks and finally graduating with the louder .45 colt blanks used in CMSA competitions.

Boogery Balloons

To avoid a blow up, you’ll have to inflate your horse’s confidence around balloons. While the actual popping of the balloons shouldn’t bother a horse that has been trained to accept gunfire, the sight of these eerily floating beasts still may freak him out.

When first introducing your horse to balloons, do it in a safe area and manner. Begin with a balloon that is about one quarter filled with air. Once your horse remains relaxed when you touch him with the balloon, and he doesn’t react badly when it’s waved or batted around him, your next step is to fill the balloon with more air. At this point he has learned to accept a single balloon while being handled, but he needs to accept them in numbers. Now is your chance, and excuse to decorate your horse’s barn, corrals or paddocks with a colorful bouquet of bobbing balloons.

Okay pardner, now that you and your horse are all geared up and ready for action, it’s time to mount up and burn some powder. Here’s hoping you get a drop on those ornery desperadoes you’ve been trailing and you’re quicker on the trigger.

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