Grab your gun and head to the arena– it’s time to ride.
When their day’s ranch or farm work is done and Matt and Marianne Rockwell head out to their arena to work on horsemanship, they take their guns with them.
Not that they expect trouble in the country around Vale, Oregon. The Rockwells are avid cowboy mounted shooters – so, part and parcel with working on lead changes, transitions and getting soft in the bridle is nailing a balloon with a shot from a .45 at a full gallop.
“To compete in this, you have to have a lot of riding skills,” Matt says. “Your horse has to be able to do all the things that a barrel racer does – make turns, slow down, rate, burst into high speed – and all the things that a reining horse does – have handle, change leads. You can’t just charge through there.”
And cow sense transfers over really well, because they’ve got to be thinking, Marianne adds.
“They’ve got to be reading the (shooting) course; there’s too much happening to not have your horse helping you, looking where he’s going,” she says.
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In a typical evening ride, the Rockwells do relatively little shooting and focus on horsemanship because that’s the real key to hitting your target.
The key to grooming a good shooting horse is to build a good foundation and just get him broke. Matt starts their young horses on cattle work first – that’s what they need on the ranch; the shooting is for down time.
“Usually, the first time I shoot on (a young horse), I’m completely away from the arena,” Matt says. “I’ll even shoot in with the cattle where the horse is in a comfortable environment.”
Matt starts slow, shooting at the most five shots at one time. The young horses also get used to the gunfire sound by loping them in the arena around seasoned horses being shot off of.
A mounted shooting course features a combination of turns around barrels and a line of poles with 10 balloon targets. You cross a timer, ride and shoot the designated course, and break the timer coming home; there are penalties for missed balloons, knocking over barrels, running off-pattern, etc.
Riders carry two single-action revolvers; each has six chambers with only five loaded. The guns are customized for the sport, with lighter hammers. The guns discharge blanks – .45 caliber “Long Colt” cartridges loaded with black powder that will break a balloon from about 15 feet. From the photographer’s position standing on the end barrel in the course, looking through a camera lens at Matt taking aim, knowing he isn’t firing bullets doesn’t prevent the heart from racing.
When Matt introduces a young horse to the shooting course, he begins with a simple course and uses a horse’s tendency to anticipate his rider to an advantage.
“I’ll want him to really know a course before I ever shoot it, so he has a confidence level; he knows where he’s going to go,” Matt explains. “On my broke horse, I only let him see a course once, because he’ll start anticipating in a bad way. When I’m at a shoot, I don’t show (a course) to him ahead of time.
“The big worry I have on a young horse is just scaring him,” Matt adds. “It’s surprising, but (the gunfire) doesn’t seem to bother a horse as much when you’re moving – even trotting or loping – as it does when you’re just standing still.”
One of the biggest challenges is to “keep everything calm when you start to add speed,” Matt says, “especially on a young horse. I’ll go work cattle as a warm-up, tracking or sorting. And then I’ll make a nice, slow run and keep it pleasant and calm. Then maybe shoot one course, let him sit a bit and put him up.
“My goal is to end up with a horse that can make a good (shooting) run and still have a brain to go do whatever else I need to do.”
Matt and Marianne don’t drill their broke horses, just keep them legged up: “The main reason I shoot on my broke horse at home is so that I can remember what it’s like to go fast, because I’ve been riding colts!”
Matt and Marianne started in the sport in 2002, along with longtime friends and fellow competitors Dave and Cindy Crandall. Dave was into target shooting and heard about the mounted sport, so the men tried shooting at balloons from their horses one night. They found a competition to go to and eventually founded a club, the Snake River Rangers.
“What got us hooked was that the girls liked doing it, too,” Matt says. “That kept us going: It’s a great family sport; there’s something for everyone.”
The Rockwells have one daughter, Annie, and one granddaughter, Riata Rose, who tags along to competitions. A normal weekend shoot, Friday through Sunday, features several “stages” or goes, with an “eliminator” or jackpot round and an average winner where consistency is a big player. The classes are gender-split, and there is a class for every level of experience.
“You can go out there on your old cow pony and get started,” Marianne says. “That’s the beauty of it. You can go to your very first shoot and have a chance at winning. Then you climb through the levels.”
The Rockwells compete successfully in both Cowboy Mounted Shooters Association (an AQHA alliance partner) and the Mounted Shooters of America and have done well at both organizations’ world championships.
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“You don’t just go and shoot and leave, you’re there camping out with friends,” Marianne says. “The socializing is as much fun as the shooting, if not more.”
It’s a close-knit group – several years ago, when a close friend and competitor Craig Deveny died suddenly from cancer, the local shooters raised more than $13,000 in silent auctions and raffles to help his wife, Patty, with the medical expenses. The shooting community rallied behind the Rockwells themselves last year, when their daughter, Annie, was hurt in a riding accident and broke her pelvis.
Cowboy mounted shooting is the perfect complement to their lifestyle. The Rockwells ranch and raise corn and a few Quarter Horses (two broodmares and one stallion). Matt is also a journeyman farrier and builds custom saddles through their Diamond R Ranch and Saddlery. Their place in Vale, Oregon, is not far from the Idaho border, where both are originally from.
“We have fun,” Marianne says.