Give It a Shot, Part 1

If you're interested in trying a new horseback-riding sport, cowboy mounted shooting might be for you.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Mounted shooting has divisions for men, women and seniors, as well as a division for youth. Chad Little’s brother Charlie rides American Quarter Horses in the men’s division. Journal photo.

If you’re looking for a sport straight out of the old Western movies, this is it. Cowboy mounted shooting is fast moving and exciting, requiring equine speed and rate, horsemanship, and a skilled and steady hand. The sport was formed in 1991 and is an AQHA-approved event through AQHA’s alliance with the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association.

Chad Little is one of the sport’s leading competitors. The 2010 CMSA world champion and 2011 national champion, Chad has set a number of CMSA world records, in addition to winning duplicate AQHA cowboy mounted shooting open world championship titles in 2012 and 2013. His brother, Charlie, is also a top-level competitor. He is also an overall CMSA world champion and has earned several national titles. Together, they train and sell horses at Little Performance Horses in St. Michael, Minnesota, in addition to offering clinics and lessons.

If hard riding and fast shooting appeals to you, here’s some information to help you get started.

Know Your Subject

Cowboy mounted shooting is a timed event. It uses a set of 10 balloons attached to stands, set in one of more than 50 approved patterns. The patterns can include such maneuvers as turning around a barrel, switching direction and going through a “gate” or relatively narrow opening. The balloon patterns often include a “rundown” - a line of five balloons set on a straightaway.

A rider uses two .45-caliber single-action revolvers, each carrying five rounds of black-powder blanks that have an effective range of 10-15 feet. The rider must cock the gun before each shot. After five shots, the rider must holster his first gun and unholster his second while on the run. There are timed penalties for missing a balloon.

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There is also a special rifle class, which requires one gun and one` .44-40 rifle. The rider shoots five balloons with the pistol then switches to the rifle for the final five balloons.

Safety is a big deal in the sport. At events, guns are kept unloaded until each competitor enters the competition ring.

Mounted shooting has divisions for men, women and seniors, as well as a division for youth. There are subcategories within those divisions by skill level, from 1 to 6. Riders start in Class 1 and advance after winning a division four times.

The Little brothers, who have been competing for a little more than a decade, are both Level 6 riders.

Shopping List

The necessary items for mounted shooting are fairly simple.

• Clothing: Start simple, with a western hat, button-down shirt, jeans, chaps or chinks, and western boots.

• Gun and holster: Mounted shooters shoot .45-caliber single-action revolvers and .44-40 rifles. Each shooter will need two pistols, which can cost from $600 to $1,000 per gun.

“There are all kinds of different brands,” Chad says. “A lot of ladies want a little bit of a smaller barrel, a smaller handle. It’s really just preference, whichever feels good to you.”

He recommends handling a number of different guns to find one that works. Different brands and different models have different feels, so hold the gun in your hand, pull the hammer back and pull the trigger.

“You want something comfortable in your hand that’s easy to pull the hammer back,” he says. “If you have to readjust your hand to pull the hammer back, (that’s not good).”

Once you invest in your guns, though, they are a lasting investment.

“Usually, whatever fits is going to fit you for a while,” Chad says. “A lot of the Level 6’s today are shooting the same little gun a Level 1 (competitor) would start with.”

Your holster, like your gun, is a matter of personal preference. Find one that places your guns comfortably and with ease of accessibility.

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• Horse: While your guns will likely last your shooting career, your mount is likely to change. As with any sport, it is best if a new shooter chooses an experienced equine partner.

“You need something that’ll slow down and treat you good in the meantime,” Chad advises. “Then in a few years, go up from there.”

Chad trains and sells shooting horses. When he is searching for a prospect, he generally looks for a gentle, broke horse with a good handle, then teaches the horse the skills of mounted shooting.

• Saddle: A mounted shooting horse needs to be dressed in western tack that would be considered representative of traditional equipment.

“I don’t want something that traps me in there; it has to let you move around a little,” Chad says. “Something comfortable that you could ride all day, yet if you ask your horse to go, it wouldn’t throw you out. Something with a good pocket, a good seat.”

• Bridle: Your horse should wear a western bridle. For a shoot, Chad uses a chain curb to give him more control in a high-energy atmosphere. He encourages seeking the mildest bit that allows control.

“It depends on your horse,” he says. “You think you do know if you’re yanking on them out there, but you usually aren’t aware, so the less bridle you can get away with, the better. I don’t encourage people to run out there in snaffles. You’re going to get run off with.”

Training at home, however, is a different story.

“Whatever I ride the horse in to shoot, I take the horse what I consider one step lower to ride at home,” he says. Chad typically schools his horses in a snaffle, unless the horse requires something stronger.

• Other: Chad typically uses leg wraps on all four legs and bell boots to protect the horses’ legs. It is also optional to use ear plugs for both horse and rider.

• Practice equipment: In addition to balloons, you’ll need a set of balloon holders, which is a road cone with a PVC pipe that is capped with a peg that has a valvestem.

In Part 2 of this series, you’ll learn where to begin if you’re interested in competing in the action-packed sport of cowboy mounted shooting. Stay tuned!