FORT WORTH -- The equestrian event in the Justin Arena began with an announcement not heard at any other Stock Show competition:
"Ladies and gentlemen, there are earplugs available at that table at the back of the arena."
And those earplugs come in handy during cowboy mounted shooting, a relatively new -- and loud -- sport in its second year at the Stock Show.
The riders, dressed sharply in Western attire, speed through patterns marked by pylons and poles standing about 4 feet high and topped with balloons. They must pop the balloons with pistols or rifles that fire blanks (the burning embers in the black powder pop the balloons) while completing the pattern as quickly as possible.
The fastest time wins, but you'd better pop the balloons: A five-second penalty is added for each one missed. Riders are also penalized for other miscues, such as dropping their guns.
Shooters came from across the U.S. for the daylong competition.
"I've always been involved with horses, but I had never shot a gun before I started this sport," said Tammy Billingsley, a horse trainer from Darby, Mont., who is one of the sport's top riders. "So it was good for me to learn how to handle the guns and be more comfortable around that. It's just really, really fun."
The Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, which put on the competition, has more than 13,000 members and is growing at a rate of 4.3 members a day.
"We are the fastest-growing equestrian association in the nation," said Dan Plaster, the president. "Increased exposure, like this event, has a lot of do with that."
Gender doesn't matter
Billingsley said she first saw a mounted shooting event in 2000.
"But I didn't get involved until 2004 after I started my business of training horses," she said. "People started sending me horses to train for mounted shooting, so that opened up a door."
Now Billingsley is one of many women who have prospered in a sport that would, at first glance, appear to be ideal for the neo-John Waynes of the world.
"There is a group of about five women who are routinely in the top 10 in the overall standings right there with the men," said Billingsley, referring to the only statistical category that is not divided by gender. "So, at any given time, half of the top riders are going to be women."
Billingsley said the sport provides a fairly level playing field where each gender can claim an edge.
"The advantages [female riders] have over men is that we are lighter and, lots of times, we're slightly better horsemen," Billingsley said.
"But the men have the more aggressive, competitive edge and are more comfortable with the guns."
On Wednesday, though, many riders were having trouble hitting their marks. "Clean runs" -- with all the balloons popped -- were rare.
"This many misses isn't normal," Billingsley said.
Because of the noise last year in the Justin Arena, she said, a lighter powder load was used this time.
"So instead of being able to make a 15- or 18-foot shot, you are having to make a 10- or 12-foot shot."
A 'family sport'
Plaster said the sport traces its origin to 1993, so people are still learning about it -- around the world.
"We have clubs in Canada, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Sweden and New Zealand," said Plaster, noting that association members are also found in all 50 states.
Members range from an 86-year-old female rider in Atlanta to the organization's "wranglers" -- aspiring mounted shooters as young as 8 and 9.
"They do not shoot off horses at those ages. We first teach them horsemanship and how to run patterns. Then they shoot off the ground. That is where we teach our kids how to handle guns and about gun safety," said Plaster, who lives in Rogersville, Mo.
"They have to be 12 or older to shoot and ride at the same time, and whenever we do shooting at that age, they have to have a parent or guardian with them."
Pointing to the youth involvement, Plaster emphasized that mounted shooting is a "family sport."
And he pulls no punches about the political and religious viewpoints of the association.
"There are only two real heroes in this world: the American soldier, whom we all love, and the American cowboy. We believe in the Second Amendment. And we believe in Jesus Christ," he said.