HAMILTON — Before Evelyn Palin, of Okotoks, Alberta, Canada, took up cowboy mounted shooting last year, she had never even held a gun before.
But on Saturday at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, she looked like Annie Oakley, as Palin donned traditional Wild West dress to go with her holster and boots in lieu of the more modern cowboy hat and blue jeans look.
"There’s a rule that men and women can wear traditional attire and I found out that if you wear it, ladies don’t have to wear cowboy hats," said Palin, who wore a corset and riding skirt while leading the Ladies 1 division through Stage 2 Saturday. "I hate cowboy hats, so I was like ‘I’m in.’ I will put on the whole getup if I don’t have to wear that cowboy hat.
"I love it, you don’t have to worry about the hat blowing off."
As it is, Palin and riders have to worry about blowing up 10 balloon targets with their .45 caliber revolvers — loaded with black powder blanks that burst the balloons by heat but otherwise safeguard spectators.
Ken Jones, the Blast in the Bitterroot event organizer, explained cowboy mounted shooting like rodeo "barrel racing with guns," and it's truly as exhilarating to watch — and compete in — as it sounds.
"We had a rifle category Friday night and now that’s like John Wayne. You drop the reigns and shoot your lever action rifle as you go down the rundown," said Jones. "It is Wild West, but it’s also really good horsemanship."
That's because the courses change throughout the event's stages. Jones said there's 80 different patterns they can run, so competitors really have to tell their horses where to go every time.
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Then, of course, they have to knock down 10 targets. The first five yellow balloons used on Saturday are shot with one gun, then riders switch pistols and try to take down five more blue balloons on a race to the finish. A miss in the timed event adds another five seconds to a rider's overall time.
"It's really important to shoot clean," Jones said.
Jones heeded his own advice Saturday, as he hadn't missed a target through two stages. Overall, though, the Stevensville native sat in 16th place midway through the event.
Blair Philippi led overall through the second stage with a two-run time of 28.39 seconds, and the Top 7 overall riders hadn't missed a shot.
A clean run, clocking in at less than 15 seconds if it's really fast, truly is wild to watch. It's like a bygone era, replete with gun blasts, is playing out before your eyes.
Why not give it a go yourself? It's something Jones, who is also president of Montana’s Make My Day Mounted Shooters, wants to see happen. While over 40 riders — some from Oregon, Idaho and out of the country — made the trip to Hamilton for the competition, Jones would always like to see more take up the sport.
"It's fan friendly, it’s really fun to watch," Jones said. "We just encourage more people to learn about the sport and watch out for it. Anybody that wants to try it, you can get a hold of me, I live in Stevensville and I’d be glad to start anybody out with a beginner lesson or information on how to do it, or where to get the equipment."
The last chance to catch the gunslinging riders in this competition will be Sunday morning at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to noon, but Jones encourages anyone interested in the sport to email him at email@example.com.