SOCORRO, New Mexico — Ten traffic cones dotted a large dirt pitch, each threaded with a helium balloon: five yellow, five pink. The balloons were the kind you’d find at any dollar store or birthday party, perfectly innocuous. At the far end of the arena, a mounted rider paced a small track in the earth, and then suddenly she was off, charging her horse through the course of cones. The rider drew her first single-action revolver and took aim at the five yellow balloons. POP POP POP POP POP. Small rubber fragments dotted the ground like daffodils in her wake.
The second part of the course, named “the rundown,” was all power and force. After shooting the first five targets, the rider wheeled her horse tightly around a barrel while holstering her first gun and drawing the second. She raced down the arena in a straight line, taking aim at the remaining five balloons. POP POP POP POP POP. On average, all this takes place in around 21 seconds; for really good riders, it’ll be closer to 14; for the best in the world, the runtime will hover right around 11.
Lesser known than the extreme equine sport, bronc riding, cowboy mounted shooting is unique in the western sports world: It combines sharpshooting with barrel racing, in a timed competition that bids mounted riders to shoot 10 reactive targets while navigating their horse through a pre-set course (there are over 60 possible course patterns in the sporting association’s official rulebook). Competitors use two .45 caliber single-action revolvers loaded with five rounds each, though the second gun can be swapped out for a rifle, depending on the competition class. Endorsing the sport’s fidelity to the Old West, firearms are restricted to original or replica models used in the 19th century, such as the Smith & Wesson Schofield, the Ruger Vaquero Montado, or the Colt Single Action Army. Competitors shoot blank cartridges with a maximum effective range of 20 feet; without a projectile, the heated force of the coarse-grain black powder causes the balloon to pop.
In addition to 19th-century style firearms, the CMSA rulebook stipulates that all competitors must wear “traditional, classic, recognizable Western” cowboy or cowgirl dress. At minimum, this means long-sleeved button-down shirts, chinks or chaps, and traditional cowboy boots and hat. Beyond that, “competitors are encouraged, but not required, to exceed” the minimum dress requirements “by electing to dress in traditional western cowboy style apparel which portrays the overall look of the west in the late 19th century.”
An insistence on adhering to western dress is not unique to cowboy mounted shooting (rodeo has similar rules). But paying homage to a certain vision of the Old West isn’t just a bit of pomp that’s been appended to this particular sport. Reprising an idealized version of that dusty, bygone era has been part of cowboy mounted shooting’s core mission since its inception. In True West magazine, Jim Rodgers, co-founder of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, writes: “The survival of our Western tradition relies upon our ability to create an interest in our Western culture and the values that we hold. The appreciation of our Western heritage must be taught. Integrity and honesty is the true ‘Cowboy Way.’”
In September, I travelled to Socorro, New Mexico to watch a cowboy mounted shooting event hosted by the New Mexico Territory Cowboy Mounted Shooters. Like much of the state, Socorro county is sparsely populated; in 2015, the city of Socorro—literally “succor,” so named for the relief the Piro Indians offered to Spanish colonists in 1598—had a population of 8,706. Cattle farming remains a key industry in the area. As I drove down I-25, past ancient Dakota Sandstone and Paleozoic rock strata, I caught a glimpse of a billboard that wrenched me back to the present: HEAVEN HAS LAWS AND A WALL. HELL HAS OPEN BORDERS.
The first organized competitive mounted shooting event took place in 1992. Two years later, Rodgers co-founded the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA), the sport’s central organization, in Arizona. Rodgers reportedly got the idea for the sport after watching a demonstration of black-powder blanks. Although mounted shoot-outs were a relatively infrequent occurrence in the Old West, the image of the gunslinging cowboy proved to be a captivating icon of the period.
If the growth of the sport is any indication, Rodgers is a shrewd leader. He is still on the CMSA’s four-man Board of Directors, and under their leadership the organization has blossomed, sponsoring local events throughout the country, as well as an annual World Championship and many regional championships throughout the year. In September alone, there were over 30 CMSA events, in places as far-flung as Washington state, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. The organization has strict rules against live rounds—a competitor isn’t even allowed to carry them, let alone use them—and CMSA certifies and supplies all ammunition used at events. CMSA-affiliated clubs also regularly hold new shooter clinics, to acclimate new riders to shooting from horseback and new horses to the commotion of gunfire.
Rodgers isn’t the first person to create a show that trades on people’s enduring fascination with the mythical cowboy. This is a tradition that stretches back to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the man who famously brought the “Wild West” to the world stage with his traveling Wild West show, which ran from 1883-1913. The most American parts of Cody were his dramatic flair, his penchant for embellishment, and his ability to make people believe that what they saw on stage was a reflection of real life. Although he insisted that his show was an educational program rather than theatre, historian Louis S. Warren wrote that Cody, “offered his audiences a projection of their own fantasies.” He let them luxuriate in a dramaticized version of life on the frontier, replete with fights with Indians, melodramatic train car robberies, and bison hunts.
Many of cowboy mounted shooting’s promotional materials exhibit the same theatrical panache. The website for Utah’s Mounted Thunder, the state’s mounted shooting club, boasts, “If you find yourself teleported to the dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona in October of 1881, you would expect to hear guns blasting, bullets flying and see cowboys galloping at full speed from the O.K. corral with guns drawn. If you find yourself in this scene in the present day, you have most likely moseyed into a Cowboy Mounted Shooting competition.” Other clubs are more judicious: the Florida Peacemakers club website reads, “Cowboy Mounted Shooting is a family sport dedicated to keeping our Western Heritage alive and the spirit of the West lives in the game and the people who surround it.”
The relationship between a cowboy and his horse is another key piece of the mythos—the National Cowboy Museum’s website states that “few pairings have ever produced a more perfect partnership between man and beast”—and competitors repeatedly brought up the importance of good horsemanship, depicted not only as a skill but the quality of the bond between rider and horse. Perfectly echoing the museum’s language, one competitor, a woman named Pam, told me, “The horse is the key to the partnership, and it is a partnership.”
Of course, the way clubs and associations promote the sport is only part of the reason why people compete. Appealing to these thrills may get some people interested in mounted shooting, though paying homage to the Old West is by no stretch a motivating force for all participants. According to Mark Marley, the Chief Financial Officer of the CMSA and fifth-generation New Mexican rancher, the element of the Old West is more important “for the older riders than the younger ones. The younger ones just want to ride fast, shoot balloons, and win money.”
The spectator parking lot of the Socorro Rodeo & Sports Complex was nearly empty when I arrived at 9:30 a.m. Overhead, the sky was streaked with thin, diaphanous clouds; it looked endless, barely contained by the ocher mountains that fringed the horizon. Inside, around 35 mounted riders were milling about the dirt arena. Almost everyone present, it seemed, was there to compete. I walked north through the complex to the RV parking lot, where a sea of trucks, RVs, and horse trailers unfurled in long silver lines. There were license plates from Texas, Arizona, and Colorado—traveling far distances is not unheard of for the sport’s dedicated group of competitors. A squat row of covered horse stalls formed an eastern border to the lot, and I could faintly hear the telltale snorts and whinnies of their occupants. There were five saddled horses in the stalls closest to the arena; most were eating hay out of large blue buckets, or else staring out at the blue morning. Only one horse, a dark brown goliath, was restlessly pacing its pen, as if preparing itself for the task ahead.
More so than other western sports event, cowboy mounted shooting is a family affair. Absent is the lonesome, solitary cowboy of pulp novels and Clint Eastwood films. There is no upper age limit for competitors, and the Wrangler competition class is available for children under 11 (they use cap guns when on horseback). That morning, I was struck by how everybody appeared to know each other—the atmosphere between competitors bore more resemblance to something you’d find at a family reunion rather than a sports competition.
When I spoke to Troy Kerr, a mounted shooter from Colorado, on the phone a few days prior to the event, he warned me that I might just end up on a horse. “Don’t be surprised if we get you on a horse so you can try it,” he said. “That’s usually the way we roll.” When I met him at the event, he was seated atop his 19-year old Quarter Horse mare. At his waist were two shiny silver revolvers. Kerr is a professional farrier, and he’s been around horses all of his life. He was with his wife, who was also competing in the day’s event.
It wasn’t uncommon to find husbands competing alongside wives, or mothers competing alongside daughters. Oddly enough, beyond the firearms and costume, it is this aspect of the sport that most closely resembles the Old West of yore, reflecting a history in which women worked on farms and ranches right alongside men. The disappearance of women from western sports is actually a modern revision—women competitively rode broncs right up until 1929, when the death of a rider named Bonnie McCarroll effectively banished the sport from women’s competitions. Since 2016, however, women’s bronc riding has been a part of the Texas Bronc Riders Association.
The event opened with a prayer, led by Rodgers, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. A scattering of applause echoed across the arena as riders casually moved to a large pen attached to the facility on the north side,where they would wait for their turn to compete.
The morning felt quiet and easy. A handful of spectators sat in plastic folding chairs closest to the arena, and families toting kids in highlighter sport jerseys drifted in and out from the soccer fields on the other side of the parking lot. In the pen, riders gathered around a black board, where the day’s courses were tacked up with push pins. There was little trace of competitive tension that one might expect to find at a sporting event. Amy, who started competing in 2008 at age 11, explained that’s what she liked most about it. “If I’m about to shoot and say my gun locks up before I go, there will be five people here,” she motioned around the pen, “that’ll be like, ‘Use mine.’ In any other sport, they’re like, ‘Sorry about it, good luck.’”
Cowboy mounted shooting is organized around seven competition classes which are split by age and gender. Competitors are further distinguished by their placement in one of six levels within their class, giving wide berth to folks across skill levels. At the event, some competitors unhurriedly cantered their horse through the barrel course, while others seemed like mounted avatars for the principle of focus, bursting across the dirt field.
It was difficult, though, to access a sense of the Old West, though perhaps that’s due to a limited imagination on my part. I was too distracted by the shining Chevy Silverados in the parking lot, the loud Holiday Inn sponsorship banner facing the grandstand. The past is contested territory; and I was peering at it, as the Bible says, through a glass darkly.
So, who was the cowboy?
In many ways, the figure was a distinctly economic invention, borne out of Federal land policies in the mid-19th century that facilitated open-range cattle ranching on a large scale across the West. A wholly unexpected description of the economic conditions that shaped cowboy life can be found in a lesser-known book by Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, and her husband, Edward Aveling. The Working Class Movement in America, based in part on Marx’s “agitation tour” of the States, dedicates a full chapter to the cowboy, whose employment by ranch owners makes them “members of the non-possessing and yet producing and distributing class.” Marx and Aveling write that although Wild West traveling shows familiarized the audience with the cowboy “under certain aspects,” they note that “there is one aspect under which this class of men seem little known to their fellow-countrymen, and are almost wholly unknown to other people’s—that is, in their capacity as proletarians.”
At least part of the modern imagining of the cowboy is defined by what he did—or to put it in a more Marxist language, by the labor he produced—but most people I spoke with at the event were more concerned with the cowboy as an enduring model for living a certain kind of moral life.
“The cowboys are real,” Pam told me. “They don’t pull any punches or get on a high horse… they’re just them.”
Darien, who’s been competing in mounted shooting since 2013, said, “The thing about the cowboy way is that you’re honest. Cowboys are honest. They honestly love the Lord, they love the country, and a handshake is as good as a document.” She continued, “I always felt I was born in the wrong state and the wrong time. I should’ve been born on a ranch.”
I wanted to ask Rodgers how he defined a cowboy, but our conversation at the event didn’t last long. He seemed open to an interview and asked me where I was from. I told him that I lived north of Socorro and he mentioned that he’d be up that way in a few days, to attend a Trump rally in Rio Rancho on September 16.
Abruptly, he asked me if I was a Republican or a Democrat. I responded that I thought both parties were terrible. Undeterred, he countered by asking if I was liberal or conservative.
“I lean more towards the liberal side of things,” I said, surprised by this sudden turn in the conversation.
In response, he brought up Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She wanted to ban cars and give everything away for free, he said, but out here—he gestured to the arena—you have to earn first place. That’s what this sport is about.