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Mounted shooters ride into Walworth County Fair

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Kevin Hoffman
September 3, 2011
— If you closed your eyes Friday at the Walworth County Fair, you’d have almost sworn you were in the Old West.

Horses raced on the grandstand’s soft dirt as the harmonic tune of a fiddle echoed throughout the arena. Throw that together with the pop of a cowboy’s five-shooter and you have one of the newest additions to this year’s fair.


“Horses and history,” said Ken Howell of Beloit, describing what brought the unique sport together in the mid-1990s.


Howell said the sport started with a love of horses and a sense of history, paying homage not only to the Old West but also to American soldiers who did battle on horseback.


The mounted shooters show on Friday was a toned-down display, which Howell hopes will get more people interested in the sport. Riders race horses through various courses and pop balloons with pistols. They’re scored by time and by their ability to hit each balloon.


The pistols fire blanks, which contain black powder that shoots up to about 20 feet, Howell said. Riders have two pistols, and after five shots they must seamlessly put one away, draw the other and continue firing at targets.


Howell said cowboy mounted shooting has evolved into one of the fastest growing horse sports. He joined in 2000, and his wife, Reggie, also competes. In fact, Reggie was Wisconsin’s points leader last year in the competition, Ken said.


“It’s a lot of fun coming here,” Ken Howell said, noting the fair program focuses more on fun than competition. “When you’re actually doing this, it’s all timed and a pretty fast sport.”


Popping balloons on horseback is just one of many challenges mounted shooters face. Another is training skittish horses to ignore gunfire and maneuver through the courses.


Howell bought his horse, Chance, straight off the range. Chance never wore a saddle and was considered a “bucking horse,” Howell said.


“(When I started) the horses were pretty much trail-riding horses,” he said. “If you made it all around the course like that and the horses didn’t buck you off, or jump out of the way or you didn’t drop a gun, you were doing good.


“You had a shootin’ horse if he didn’t try to kill you for doing it.”


Howell calls mounted shooting a partnership between the horse and rider. These horses must be more skilled than barrel racing or pole bending horses, Howell said.


Mounted shooting requires a jack-of-all-trades horse with endurance, agility and speed, he said.


Howell added that many riders in his sport started as Civil War or cowboy re-enactors. Most participants are history buffs and admire the horses.


“If you study history and you don’t study horses, you miss half the history,” he said. “We wouldn’t have went where we went or did what we did without our animal partners.”



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