The .45s are loaded. Old Dusty Hills sits atop his galloping horse Rio, ready to shoot. With a swift sweeping motion, he pulls a revolver out of his holster and aims at the target swaying gently in a cloud of fine dust.
He fires. Simultaneously the deafening report hangs in the air, the smoke puffs from the cylinder, and the target bursts. He rides on through the course, blasting all of the balloons in a matter of seconds.
Though this is only a practice session, the California Range Riders are showing off the skills they will put on display this Saturday at Hoffman Arena on the southern edge of Turlock.
Riders with required western handles like Old Dusty Hills, Old Buckaroo, California Girl and Diamond Dixie all compete in this equestrian sport, which is comprised of six clubs, each with a different set of members.
When OId Buckaroo, aka Steve Holland, started this group with his gal California Girl (alias Judy Stewart) about 17 years ago, the goal was to have fun, provide entertainment, and revel in the spirit of the Old West.
It began with a video he saw of some rodeo stars and mounted riders in a shootout in Las Vegas. At the time Holland was doing bit parts in Hollywood productions and putting on Wild West shows, the kind you would see at Knott’s or a state fair. He noticed that “the rodeo riders didn’t really know how to shoot,” but he was intrigued.
Then he attended a show involving the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS, which later became a part of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, CMSA), and that was it.
“We were hooked,” he says.
Four months later he bought his first horse, SnakiPoo, formed a group, and staged the first practice.
The first shoot was called “Blazing Saddles,” after the Mel Brooks film of the same name. They made signs, built miniature bridges and gates that popped up to enhance the verisimilitude of the atmosphere.
It didn’t take long for the California Range Riders to grow. Holland did all of his own promotion: posting ads in papers, putting on demos and clinics at horse expos, and spreading the word. The placement of the valley in relation to the rest of the state also helped. Riders could swarm in from all angles, and as Holland puts it, “like wheel spokes” they converged on the center.
One of those riders is Ab Grabber, alias Mark Thomas, given the name for his penchant for fishing abalone.
A retiree and a carpenter in his former life, Thomas never thought of being a mounted shooter. When he saw his first exhibition, he liked it but thought “I’m never gonna shoot.” Then a rider handed him his guns.
“I’m tasting Nevada dirt today,” he said as he planted himself on the horse. But he didn’t. When he fired the first shot, much like Holland seeing SASS for the first time, he became addicted.
“I’ve been hooked ever since,” he says. He loves the idea of mounted shooting as a self-reliant activity, where man and horse become one without the interference of anyone or anything else.
That sentiment sounds like it echoed from a time where horses were not only an integral part of life, but your transportation, your constant companion.
Thomas’ passion isn’t an anomaly. Everyone seems to genuinely enjoy the time they spend out on the course.
Nobody is out to get rich. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. They are out to have fun.
The members here today, though not clad in full western regalia, still look as if they had wandered through a time warp. Old Dusty Hills, alias Jerry Kurtz, sports a chalky mustache and spurred boots. Old Buckaroo appears to be a town sheriff in a t-shirt, with eyes squinted and silvery flowing hair befitting a Jeff Bridges body double. California Girl wears a sequined button up, her hat tilted slightly to shield the oppressive sun.
One thing they all have in common is their love for mounted shooting. Though the targets are balloons stuck onto poles of varying heights, they charge through the course as if they are preparing for some great battle.
The certified black powder blanks manage to pop the balloons at a distance of 15 to 20 feet, and there is serious skill involved in maneuvering through the poles like a slalom skier armed with a .45 revolver.
When the competition begins Saturday, there will be a few additions. The traditional western outfit is a necessity. That means long sleeves, jeans covered with chaps or chinks, and of course cowboy hats. There will also be an announcer, a scorekeeper, and a race against the timer.
Though there are 70 different courses to choose from, Holland puts six poker chips with numbers on them into a hat, each one corresponding to a specific course. Then they pick at random.
Riders blitz their way through the layout, starting at one end and bursting the light colored balloons on their way to the end of the arena. Then they pull the reins for a quick U-turn, hitting the dark colored balloons as they return to where they began.
And every millisecond counts.
Factors such as the weight of a saddle or an ill-timed turn can mean the difference between a loss and a victory.
Holland recalls that he has even seen five riders come within three-tenths of a second, and it is not uncommon for a single second to separate an entire field.
One of the prized spoils for the victor is an ornate belt buckle, which Old Dusty Hills happens to be wearing from a previous win as five-time holder of the California state title.
There are also trophies and cash for the winners, but ultimately it’s all about the experience.
Old Dusty Hills has always wanted to be a cowboy, and his rhetorical adoration for mounted shooting could also be a tagline for the sport.
“How great is it to ride a horse and shoot a six-shooter?”
The Cowboy Mounted Shooting event will be held 10 a.m. Saturday at Hoffman Arena, 11342 Merced Ave., Turlock. The event is free for spectators.