Stetson-wearing cowboys and cowgirls astride galloping horses take aim with their six-guns and blast away at their targets.
The attire and weaponry is strictly late-1800s. Alas, the targets aren’t cattle poachers or train robbers, they’re yellow and blue balloons.
"Everything I know about guns, I learned from Roy and Gene," joked 61-year-old Dennis Bougher, referring to the legendary cowboys of the silver screen, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
In his other life, Bougher of Greenville, S.C., works in telecommunications. But once a month from February to October, he and his daughter, Christine, pack up and head out on the road for a little ridin’ and shootin’.
"It’s something to do with horses and guns," said Bougher, a longtime paint horse owner who took up the sport with his 36-year-old daughter three years ago. "She saw this and thought we should try it, and we got hooked."
Gainesville’s equestrian center is a Southeastern hub for cowboy mounted shooting, with about 70 members of the Peach State Mounted Shooters actively involved in the sport. They come from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama to run the courses with their .45-caliber revolvers. The single-action pistols shoot blanks, but still pack enough punch to burst the balloons at close range with hot black powder.
Speaking to the appeal of mounted shooting competitions, Peach State Mounted Shooters co-founder Joel Paulk says, "part of it’s just the cowboy way."
"It’s not subjective like a walking horse show," he said. "This is a timed event. It’s just you and the clock."
A good rider must have a "good seat" in the saddle, good hands and good coordination, Paulk said. He or she must be able to ride one-handed and use the other hand to cock back the hammer of a single-action revolver before each of the 10 required shots.
"You’ve got to think ahead," Paulk said. "When you’re shooting the balloon, you’ve got to be putting your horse into the next turn. This puts everything you learn together."
As for the horses, they must be unfazed by the tremendous noise created by high-caliber guns going off in semi-enclosed spaces.
"It’s just like any other animal competition," Peach State Mounted Shooters President Michelle Ruper said. "You’ve got to train your horse to get them prepared."
Horses are slowly acclimated to the noise by starting them off with cap pistols, then smaller-caliber starter pistols and finally "full-load" .45 blanks. They also may be trained with horses already accustomed to the noise.
"Most of the horses wear ear plugs as well," Ruper noted.
"It’s a big deal for a horse," Bougher said. "There’s a lot of noise, lot of excitement; there’s a lot going on."
Bougher said he rides purely for fun and seldom pays attention to his times. If he shoots a clean round, he’s happy.
And the camaraderie among the cowboys and cowgirls keeps him coming back.
"You couldn’t run into a whole group of nicer, more helpful people," he said. "If it was just about the competition, we wouldn’t keep coming. It’s about the people we associate with."
The competition continues today, with cowboy church set for 8 a.m. and shooting competition expected to begin at 9:15 a.m. and last throughout the afternoon. There is no admission fee.
The next mounted shooting competition at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 18.