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Do You and Your Horse Have What it Takes to:
Ride Fast. Shoot Straight. Win Big.

An Introduction to the Sport of Mounted Shooting

Written by: Timothy Anderson

The sport of Mounted Shooting  is spreading quickly among riders of all types from coast to coast. Former barrel racers, rodeo competitors, team ropers and weekend trail riders are finding out just how challenging the sport can be. So what is necessary for horse and rider in this unique sport? Jim Hanson and Andra Olson, two of mounted shooting’s top competitors and clinicians offer insight and practical advice to help you ride fast, shoot straight and win big in mounted shooting.

What is mounted shooting?

Mounted shooting is an exciting new equestrian sport that combines the speed of barrel racing and the challenge of target shooting. Competitors race through various patterns of barrels and poles within in an area while firing 45 caliber pistols loaded with black powder blanks at balloon targets. Scoring is based on elapsed time plus a five second penalty for each target missed or barrel knocked over. An average course of fire normally takes a contestant between 10 and 30 seconds to complete. Competitors range in ability (from novice to professional) age (from ages 12-65). There are more than 5,000 mounted shooters (in over 135 mounted shooting clubs) throughout 47 states in the U.S.

What are some of the steps necessary to prepare horse and rider for mounted shooting?

“The most important ingredient necessary to be a competitive mounted shooter is patience,” says Andra. “You need to have patience with your horse and yourself as you learn the skills that are necessary to compete in mounted shooting."

“In addition," adds Jim, “you need a horse that has a calm attitude and a willingness to learn and experience new situations. Both horse and rider need to trust one another completely, to work together as one unit toward one goal." According to Jim and Andra, that trust can be developed when your work consistently with your horse over time with much practice.  And in the end, patience is the thread that ties it all together.

1. What kind of horse make a good mounted shooting horse?

As partners in AJ Horses, Jim and Andra train and sell top mounted shooting horses to riders across the country. So, what exactly makes a good mounted shooting horse? “A good mounted shooting horse is sound, athletic, healthy and can handle extreme situations with a calm demeanor.” says Jim. “The age of your horse isn’t as important as good health. Another important trait in a mounted shooting horse is a strong desire and willingness to learn,“ he added. Jim believes that not every horse can be trained to be a mounted shooting horse. Some horses will or cannot accept the gunfire. If you are having trouble, he suggests that you seek professional assistance if needed. But don’t wait too long before bad habits take hold

2. How long does it typically take to train a mounted shooting horse?

Introducing a horse to the sport of mounted shooting requires many things. And the length of time it will take depends on the mind-frame of the horse, the ability of the rider and the measure of determination.

“For someone who practices and works with their horse daily it will take a lot less time than the casual rider," says Andra. “For most horses it will take approximately 3-6 months. Ninety percent of the time a new rider to the sport makes the mistake of assuming that if their horse gets it the first time out it will always get it. Often the very next time there is a problem,” she adds.

3. What kind of training is important for the mounted shooter?

“Above all a mounted shooter needs to be physically fit and be able to make independent upper body movements while on horseback, says Andra. “You can practice this technique by turning your upper body at an angle to your horse while riding straight ahead,” says Andra. Key to this technique is keeping your lower body "planted" in your saddle. “Since about half of the shots in a competition are cross shots where you will extend your arm across your chest, you must be able to twist your upper body to get the shot,” adds Jim.  “When we practice, most of our work is done without a pistol focusing on rider position and handling,“ he said. Neck reigning or riding one-handed can also be practiced without holding your pistol.

4. How do you train your horse to overcome the fear of gunfire?

One of the most important steps in training a horse for mounted shooting involves helping your horse to overcome its fear of gunfire. It’s normal for a horse to baulk or shy at the sound of a gun. But how do you help your horse overcome that fear?

“The best way to train a horse and overcome gun shyness is to tie them near an arena where other riders are practicing so they can hear the loud noise and know that it won’t hurt them.“ says Jim. “Since a horse’s first defense is flight, you want to be in a situation where your horse is within earshot and eyesight of gunfire and other horses. Time and exposure will overcome their fear,“ he says.

As if overcoming the sound of gunfire isn’t enough, a mounted shooting horse must also overcome its fear of popping balloons. “You must teach your horse that like gunfire, a bursting balloon won’t hurt them," says Andra. "Once they come to that understanding, they are perfectly fine with balloons popping over, under and all round them," she says, Both Jim and Andra encourage their students to tie balloons to their horses’ feed buckets, water trough, and place them loose on the floor of barn ad stalls to help them overcome thier fear.

Specially made earplugs for horses can also help to deaden the sound of gunfire and balloon popping for most horses. Jim and Andra always ride with earplugs for themselves and for their horses. Jim says that the best way to introduce your horse to earplugs is in steps. “When I am introducing a new horse to earplugs I start with the assumption that horses naturally don’t like their ears touched, especially on the inside of the ear. So start by touching and rubbing your horses ears with your hands moving inside the ear periodically to build up trust that you will not hurt them,“ says Jim. “Once your horse tolerate your touch, begin rubbing the ear plug itself on the horses outside of ear and then inside. Once they accept the touch, gently slide it into the ear and immediately remove it. Repeat this until your horse accepts it,” he adds. Jim says that most horses will learn to accept earplugs over a weekend of practice.

5. What are some effective training tools for mounted shooting? 

Once your horse has overcome his fear of balloons popping and guns firing, it’s time to put it all together a begin riding. Neck reigning is essential for mounted shooting because one hand will be holding a pistol. Leg cues are also important especially with advanced riders. “Be sure to train your horse in a calm atmosphere, making your horse slow down, focusing on you until they completely understand the routine,” says Andra. “The mind frame of your horse must be one of listening or anticipating your cues.” she adds.

"We practice regularly with trust exercises. A trust exercise is used to deepen the trust bond between horse and rider. For example, we regularly ride around an arena in a random pattern around barrels and poles with balloons tied throughout. In a trot or canter, turn your horse toward any side of the arena and ride directly ahead toward the fence. Just before you come to the fence bring your horse to a complete stop. This teaches your horse that you a re in control and won’t do anything to hurt the horse. Another trust exercise is running between very narrow gates of barrels or poles."

"You should begin practicing by shooting off of your horse without firing a gun by simply extending your arm straight out from your body and pretending to aim at targets. Always keep your shooting path midway between your hip and your horses ear. If you shoot too close, your horse could get burned by an ember from the shell, and shooting behind will throw-off your timing. When you do use live ammunition and shoot, make sure that both horse and rider are wearing protective ear plugs. For maximum impact, the ideal distance between the end our your pistol barrel and the balloon target is 8-10 feet. Start by maneuvering randomly around barrels and poles in a large arena. Make sure that you have placed balloons throughout the arena and attached to the barrels and poles to make your practice rides as realistic as possible. As you progress, you may want to set up your barrels and poles in a variety of different patterns," Andra explains.

Final Thoughts

Whatever your goal is in mounted shooting, have fun and don’t override your abilities or your horses abilities. Also, do other kind of riding occasionally to keep your horse from becoming bored. Cross-training such as trail riding, working cattle are all good ways to keep your horse fresh. Also, in the process and don’t expect too much from yourself right way. When ever your attempt to learn a new skill like mounted shooting, it simply takes time. It’s a great sort where you and your horse can make new friends and enjoy healthy competition.

For those who would like more information about mounted shooting, here are a number of helpful websites and instructional video resources:



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