The cowboy reaches up to adjust the brim of his hat, while the fringes on his leather chaps swish, his spurs jingle and his horse whinnies, anxious to take off. In a second, they are racing in a cloud of dust. Soon there is the crack of a revolver and the smell of gunpowder in the air. Here at the Pennsylvania Cowboy Mounted Shooting Championship (CMS), it is easy to forget that these folks are just ‘playing’ at being cowboys and are not the real deal.
Part of that is because this fastest growing equine sport has a strict dress code. Period 1800’s western attire is only permitted during competitions. This national competitive sport involves riding a horse while you negotiate a course and shoot at balloon targets set up in varying patterns. Ammunition used is a casing filled only with coarse black powder. This is what bursts the balloons when aimed accurately. The burning powder exits the gun and travels a maximum distance of 25 feet, although, the ideal distance is eight feet.
I am here today with my cowboy friend, Hoppy May. He received his nickname as a youngster for he loved to watch Hop-Along Cassidy. This fictional cowboy, created in 1904, appeared in a series of books and over sixty films. Hop always wanted to be a cowboy and CMS helps that dream come true.
Although the sport is new to Pennsylvania (began in 2012), Cowboy Mounted Shooting as a competitive sport has been around for twenty years, originating in Arizona. President of Keystone Cowboys, Dave Billote, grew tired of making long drives to participate in neighboring states’ competitions and wanted to start a club in Pennsylvania. Dave and Hop wanted to promote the sport in Pennsylvania and increase participation locally.
Pennsylvania’s state team is called the Keystone Cowboys. They boast about fifty competing members. Smaller competitions are held throughout spring/summer/fall, but the most exciting is this championship held in Center Hall’s Equestrian Park at the Grange Fairgrounds. The competing shooters hail from nine states, with the farthest being Tennessee.
Davey is a farrier by trade and his wife, Liz is also into Cowboy Mounted Shooting. They have a ranch in Frenchville, Clearfield County, where they train and board horses. There are many couples who participate together. Some show horses, and many are hunters, or into trap and skeet, so they are used to guns and shooting. Some are into reenacting and attend period rendezvous.
Each rider races individually and is riding against the clock. As soon as a rider begins and passes through the electronic eye positioned on a tripod, the clock begins ticking. The rider has two single action revolvers attached to his/her chest in holsters. One gun must be used to shoot out the first five balloons. Then that gun must be holstered and the second gun removed to complete the shooting. The revolvers hold five rounds of 45 grams of black powder.
If a rider “kills” all the balloons, he is said to be “clean.” Every balloon you miss, you get penalized ten points. Racking up points can place competitors in a higher, more widespread competitions.
A team of helpers blows up hundreds of white and blue balloons with a compressed tank of air. They run the balloons out onto the arena and position them in their PVC collars between each contestant. The balloons are staged in different patterns in the arena, the designs taken from over 60 CMS designated patterns. No competitors are privy to what they will look like beforehand so there is no opportunity to practice. Each rider must study the patterns right before each stage to determine the best and fastest way through the course. A range master makes sure everything is in order and the rules are being followed.
A rider doesn’t just get judged on if he/she kills all the balloons, but also on speed, sportsmanship and control of your animal. Some of the women competitors are barrel racers and compete in rodeos. Their quarter horses know how to cut and shave off yards and seconds.
Although the horses of the Old West were accustomed to loud close gunfire, today’s horses have to be trained. The first time you make a horse do this, they are skittish, and understandably so. A new horse will first practice with experienced horses. First, it stands near the arena with horses on both sides that are very calm and used to gunshot. The horse will be nervous when he hears the shooting but horses communicate. He will wonder, “Do I need to run from this?” This is called “soft exposure”- exposing them to a noise.
Once they are calm, you can ride the patterns without shooting so they get used to balancing as their rider leans and cuts around the balloons. Next is exposure to the clicking noise. Riders get a little toy cap gun to become exposed to the BANG! If the horse has problems, you go back to having an experienced horse right next to him.
Most of the competing horses are quarter horses, bred and instinctively know how to cut tightly and herd cows. A few competitors ride Tennessee Walkers like Marty Luftman, who hails from Tennessee. He is a sight to see in his outfit with black vest, ruffle s on his white dress shirt, garter up his sleeve, depicting an Old West gambler!
The revolvers they use are new, like a Ruger Vaquero, costing about $4-500. They are made to look like the original old Colt 45’s, which are worth about $10-20,000 apiece and are too valuable to take out for Cowboy Mounted Shooting.
The youngster division, twelve and under are called ‘wrangers.’ They cannot shoot guns but are allowed to point their arms at the balloons as if they were, in order to get used to the action. Then they shoot from the ground with a parent or a guardian. Safety is always a priority with CMS.
In-between contests, the arena is brushed smooth and practice is underway outdoors in an arena. Here I find siblings, seven year old Lyndee Norris and nine-year old Austin, practicing. Little girls with flowing hair and bellowing long cotton skirts, riding steeds that dwarf them, yet the animals appear to be an extension of their bodies. The whole Norris clan of five kids was on the tops of horses about the same time they learned to walk. Their parents, Kenny & Debra, from Ohio own fifty head of horses as they raise and sell colts, train and give lessons for a living. “Cowboy Mounted Shooting is a very family-oriented group,” Dave tells me, and the Norris family is a prime example.
Country music is playing over the loud speakers as the afternoon competition continues. A rifle category remains and then the top five winners from each division will compete after dinner. A dance featuring Sally’s Bottom Band will round off the event.
Keystone Cowboys host three shoots a year, most taking place at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, near Brookville, PA. This year’s state championship will once again take place in Center Valley on October 12-13. From here, competitors can go on to compete in regional and then national competitions. The Keystone Cowboys are affiliated with the National Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) and all their events are sanctioned.
Years ago, the cowboys needed these skills to put food on the table and to stay alive. Today, they just love to ride horses and be marksmen. The Keystone Cowboys motto is, “Ride Hard, Shoot Straight.”
“We all just want to be cowboys,” Hoppy May admits, “and to keep the heritage and cowboy legend alive.”
For the schedule: www.keystonecowboys.com/
(A version of this appeared in the May issue of Pennsylvania Magazine)www.pa-mag.com