Modern Day Outlaws

Stemming from the historical exhibitions of the Wild West, cowboy mounted shooting has become the fastest growing equine sport and the second-fastest growing extreme sport in the nation. With their guns, horses and 1800s-style dress, these cowboys and cowgirls certrainly make a lot of noise. Yet, considering the gun violence currently taking place across the world, the Northern Ohio Outlaws provide an alternative view on the use of these weapons in a controlled sports environment.  

Story and Photos by Nicole Raucheisen

There are not many real cowboys left in today’s world. In the Civil War era, they were the pioneers of the American West. In Hollywood, they were hard-drinking drifters who had shootouts along main street. Over time and with the growth of technology, the cowboys dwindled both on and off the screen. Still, imagine if you could play a cowboy in real life? Atop your horse, you have the wind in your hair, your gun at the ready and your targets in front of you. The clock starts and the next 35-60 seconds are filled with the thunderous sound of pounding hooves, gunfire and breaking balloons. In Cowboy Mounted Shooting, that is the reality.

Eric Schreiber shoots the targets in the “rundown” during the 2015 American Quarter Horse Congress shootout in Columbus, Ohio. 

Over 20 years ago, with the spirit of the Western lifestyle in mind, the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) formed and started this competitive, equestrian sport as we know it today. Dressed in traditional western or 1800s attire and armed with two single action .45 caliber pistols, competitors race through one of 64 official courses designed to test both their horsemanship and shooting skills. Each course has 10 balloon targets, which need to be shot in order as quickly as possible. For obvious safety reasons, live ammunition is strictly prohibited. Instead, they follow the 1800s influence of the sport and use brass cartridges loaded with black powder. Unlike other equine sports, there are no judges. Scoring is based on speed, accuracy and any incurred penalties for missed targets, failure to follow the specified course or knocking over barrels and target stands. “You run against yourself and the clock,” says Mark Wright, president of the Northern Ohio Outlaws. “It’s as black and white as you can get, but that’s why we do this sport. We do it to feed the butterflies. That’s part of the excitement, that’s what we look forward to. It’s very much a speed sport and an adrenaline rush.”

Similar to other individual sports, you have to earn your rank and work your way through the classes before becoming a champion. Overall, there are four Divisions with Classes 1-6 in each, including the Men’s, Senior Men’s, Women’s and Senior Women’s. In the interest of fair play, all riders start out in Class 1 within their Division and advance through the Classes with qualified wins at each level. For those who may be born into the sport or want to start out young, the Wranglers Class provides the necessary guidance and discipline for children age 11 and under to advance in the sport. These youngsters ride the same course that the grown-ups do, but they don’t use loaded guns until they are properly trained. They pretend to shoot each target as if they were firing real blanks during their runs and then shoot at ground targets afterwards with an instructor by their side.

Jim Higgins has been the armorer for the Outlaws since he joined the group seven years ago. His responsibilities include teaching proper gun handling, overseeing the use of sanctioned ammunition and supervising the loading and unloading of firearms. On his watch, there has never been a gun-related incident.

When you consider the amount of things a competitor needs to simultaneously remember during a run — keep the horse moving forward, cock the gun, pull the trigger, shoot the balloon, don’t shoot the horse, don’t shoot myself — it’s easy to understand why they emphasize safety at all times across the sport, especially to newcomers and the younger competitors.  

With over 17,000 competitors in 107 clubs spanning six countries, cowboy mounted shooting has certainly come a long way since its inception. While some regulations may have changed over the years, an essential responsibility has remained a priority since the start: gun safety. The importance of respectful and mindful gun use increases significantly in light of the gun violence and gun control debates currently happening in our world. By providing one-on-one instruction in firearm handling, safe shooting practices, horsemanship, and the rules of the sport during club-sponsored clinics throughout the year, the CMSA demonstrates that these weapons need to be taken seriously while also presenting an alternative view of their use in a family-oriented sport.

Although most clubs average around 40 members, the Northern Ohio Outlaws currently have about 350 members in over six states and even some in Canada. How does a club based in Wooster, Ohio become the largest CMSA club in the world? Camaraderie. They pride themselves on being a family rather than a group or a club. For example, if someone forgets their holster or their horse isn’t feeling well, someone else will inevitably offer their own. As Mark Wright points out, “Everyone tries to take care of each other. What other sport could you go to and have people say, ‘Here use my equipment and go do it’, especially with a horse?” It always circles back to the old-fashioned values of the cowboy era: God, country and family. By starting every event with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and an Outlaw introduction, which entails a lap around the arena under the group flag, they establish their focus and mission from the start.

Besides hosting competitive shoots, the group also gets together for fun shootouts, game nights, camping trips and banquets to celebrate everyone’s hard work. With typically two shoots a month from April to October — not to mention state finals, regional finals, national finals and then the world competition — the sport definitely requires hard work. For the Outlaws, the culmination of that effort happens in October at the All American Quarter Horse Congress shootout. They’ve hosted this CMSA World Qualifier event for the past four years. Each year, they organize over 120 shooters competing in two arenas for the added money prize of $5,000. The group oversees everything from proper registration to recording accurate run times to hiring balloon setters. Yet, despite the size of the production and the inevitable exhaustion the day brings, everyone agrees the event is worth the effort. Not because of the money or the points they win, but because of their love of the horses and the sport.

Eric Schreiber teaches Cate Westley, who is in the limited wrangler class, to shoot at a series of ground targets at the Congress shootout.

Even though the Northern Ohio Outlaws have some of the best shooters in the country, they cheer hardest for their comrades and offer some of their best advice to beginners. That’s the cowboy way. And if the mood becomes a little too competitive or disparaging, Alena Soehnlen likes to use the acronym F.R.E.S.H. to remind herself why she does this: Fun riding with my family; Riding, training and shooting off my horse; Enjoying the atmosphere of the cowgirls and cowboys; Serving others; and Honoring Christ. While this may not be the official group motto, many members feel the same. Once you join the Outlaws, you become a part of something larger than yourself. You become a part of an organization based on honesty, integrity, pride and commitment — not only to the sport, but also to your 350 new brothers and sisters.