Straight Shooter

You mean I actually get to ride and shoot? I'd just arrived at world-champion mounted-shooter Annie Bianco-Ellett's Palm Ranch, Cave Creek Arizona, for an interview for the September 2005 WH feature "Safe Shooting." Greeting me in the driveway, Bianco-Ellett, a lively horsewoman with contagious enthusiasm, immediately swept me to the arena and invited me to a private lesson.

Having competed in barrel racing and pole bending most of my riding years, and being a big fan of western shootouts on the silver screen, I'd secretly wanted to try the fast-action sport of mounted shooting, but didn't know where to begin. Today, however, I questioned whether my brief time with Bianco-Ellett was better spent riding or interviewing.

"Come on, give it a try," Bianco-Ellett insisted. "Many of the maneuvers in mounted shooting are the same as you did in pole bending and barrel racing. You're going to love it."

What harm could it do, I thought, and, maybe, it might add a new perspective to my article - one of personal experience. Mounted shooting, here I come.

Target Practice

Bianco-Ellett recommends that all of her students know how to handle a firearm safely before attempting mounted shooting. Coming from a family of marksmen, I was familiar with shooting a pistol, although a bit rusty. That was okay, though, because Bianco-Ellett starts all of her students shooting from the ground. "If you can't do it from the ground, you can't do it on a horse," she explained.

Having thought of everything, Bianco-Ellett borrowed a pair of shiny, new Cimarron single-action pistols and a beautifully tooled black leather holster from Cactus Leather, Phoenix, Arizona, for me to use. Mounted-shooting competitors usually have their firearms customized to fit their hands and grips. Since the equipment I was using was on loan, I didn't have such luxuries. But I made it work.

Bianco-Ellett began our session with basic firearm handling and shooting techniques. "Starting with the left gun, draw and point at your target, keeping your index finger on the outside of the cylinder," she instructed. "You don't want your finger on the trigger, or you could inadvertently fire a shot.

"Now," she continued, "Hold the gun as though you're firmly shaking hands with someone. Keep your elbow straight, without hyper-extending it, and your arm and wrist firm. No wimpy wrists."

Next, Bianco-Ellett explained the shooting process. "Pull down the hammer, move your index finger to the inside of the trigger guard, eye your target, then pull the trigger," she said.

Although this all sounded simple, I tended to want to rest my finger on the trigger. Once I corrected that habit, I practiced drawing, aiming and firing the unloaded pistol at five balloon targets lined up in the arena.

I quickly mastered the simulated shooting and was ready to advance to firing quarter-rounds of black powder, the spectator-friendly ammunition designed for mounted shooting. Standing eight to 10 feet from each balloon, I firmly grasped the pistol, pulled it from the holster, aimed and fired. Amazingly, the gun fired with minimal kick. After shooting all five balloons, we reset the targets. Then, Bianco-Ellett instructed me to simulate trotting on my horse, with my rein hand out, and jog beside the targets, shooting them as I passed. "Think of your body as a clock and your arms as the clock hands," she explained. "You want to shoot at 2 or 11 o'clock, depending whether you're right or left handed. If you're early or late, it'll impede your timing and accuracy.

"When shooting, turn only your core, from the waist up, then reach with your shoulder and shoot," she continued. "If you turn your hips, you'll also turn your horse."

Concentrating on my shooting form and technique, I jogged through the course, shooting each balloon I passed. Then went through the mini-course again, practicing pistol changes and on- and off-hand shots.

Throughout the groundwork phase, I received a thumbs-up from my coach.

Mounted Maneuvers, Life Lessons

When it came time to shoot from horseback, the transition was easy because I'd developed good form and habits on the ground. My horse was a black Quarter Horse gelding named "Jet," owned by Elizabeth Dragoon, Scottsdale, Arizona. Trained by Dan Dyrd, Jet was seasoned in maneuvering through mounted-shooting courses - a perfect mount for my first time shooting.

Applying the same systematic approach to shooting she did on the ground, Bianco-Ellett first had me neck rein Jet through one of the 50 Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association patterns. In mounted shooting, one hand holds a firearm and the other holds the reins, so it's critical you can control your horse with a neck rein.

Once the horsewoman determined I could safely control and maneuver Jet through the pattern, she had me simulate shooting the targets with an unloaded pistol, working on my timing and form. I remained eight to 10 feet from the targets, just like I did on the ground. Keeping Jet in a straight, steady walk, I drew my pistol, extended my arm and shot 10 out of 10 targets.

Next, she divided the pattern into sections and had me practice maneuvering my horse through the course at a walk and trot, shooting the targets and practicing on- and off-hand shots and eventually gun changes. Once I'd completed each section of the pattern, it was time to put it all together.

"Work at a pace you're comfortable," Bianco-Ellett said. "Accuracy comes before speed."

I eased Jet into a trot for the first half of the pattern. Then, feeling confident in the final portion - the rundown - I kicked him into a lope. Pow, pow, pow - and perfect 10.

"You can't get much better than that for your first time," Bianco-Ellett called out. "Let's end on a good note."

Having experienced the thrill of mounted shooting not only helped me understand Bianco-Ellett's passion for her sport and all that's involved in it, but it also revived my competitive spirit and desire to learn something new. Bianco-Ellett also taught me a valuable lesson that applies to mounted shooting and life: "Ride hard, shoot straight and be in the moment of each balloon."

If you're interested in trying mounted shooting, CMSA has developed a stable of professional trainers throughout the country. Visit www.cowboymountedshooting.com for more information. For more on Annie Bianco-Ellett and her equipment, visit www.outlawannie.com.