Cole Salopek made some impressive runs during the mounted shooting competition.
Russell Huffman | El Defensor Chieftain photos

At 80-something years young, Edgewood, New Mexico’s Susan and Ralph Hill are still some serious horse riders, and the couple also wields a mean pair of pistols as part of the New Mexico Territory Cowboy Mounted Shooters associations, which held its Chili Shoot in Socorro on Aug. 12 and 13.

Passersby on Highway 60 might have heard the shooting of single-action Colt pistols and Winchester rifles that were used to shoot balloons by horse-mounted cowgirls and cowboys through many patterns.

The action can be slower for newer horses and their riders to fast-paced action that carries one right back into yesteryear, where Ralph Hill fully admits he watched action-packed western movies starring Hollywood greats like Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix.

Ralph and Susan have been taking part in mounted shooting for the past 16 years, and while neither one is ready to ride off into the sunset, there have been some thoughts about watching it do so from an easy chair – but just not yet.

“It keeps us young. Every year we talk about quitting, but we keep getting drawn back. It’s just the adrenaline rush. This is one of the friendliest sports in the world. A lot of people bring their kids and the whole family,” Ralph said.

As the pair started in the sport, they collected all the proper trappings for themselves and their horses, from single-action Colt-style pistols, chaps, boots, and hats to less noticeable things like hearing protection for their steeds.

Kay Rivers blazes away with .45 pistols instead of spending her weekends baking cookies.

“You need to have a good horse and be a good horseman. The training takes a long time to get the horses used to not only gunfire but the smoke and the buildings we run inside,” Ralph said.

Hill has used four different horses throughout his mounted shooting career, and the preferred mount for riders seems to be the lightning-fast quarter horse known for its quickness and agility. Many shooters are mounted on former barrel horses that help with the tight turns around barrels where valuable time can quickly be gobbled up and lost.

Socorro’s covered rodeo arena with its open walls provides the right kind of atmosphere the CMSA wants for its shooters because events don’t get canceled due to weather, and the structure doesn’t echo the shots fired like on that is fully enclosed.

President of the New Mexico territory of the CMSA Ta-Willow Romero is from Moriarty, and she’s also a competitor but was too busy helping with the logistics at Socorro’s Chile Shoot to participate.

It is Romero’s first year to serve as president, and she’s got 15 years of mounted shooting experience to back her up after first starting in the Single Action Shooter Society. The CMSA began as an offshoot of the society and bloomed into an organization that’s gained nationwide status and gone from handing out belt buckles to people making a living off the sport.

“I’ve done almost every equine sport you can imagine, and to be honest with you, the people and the families here are the best,” Romero said. “Because the cowboy mounted shooting is about family, and every person in your family can start at any level. We have our younger riders, who are known as wranglers. They ride the patterns, but they don’t shoot the balloons.”

Some western/rodeo-related events are highly competitive, with athletes always seeking that extra edge. Because big money is involved, advice for calf or team roping can run slim unless you’re in that athlete’s tight circle, but that’s not what Romero found regarding mounted shooting.

The 2012 world champion found her first event to be eye-opening because her fellow competitors were stepping forward with advice and even equipment if she needed it. If anything has changed since that time – the competition is even more helpful.

Kaley Salopek takes dead aim during the Chile Shoot in Socorro on Saturday.

“My horse came up lame, and I was going up to the office to scratch my ride, and there was a guy I had never met from Florida. And he said he said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ I said ‘I’m going to scratch my horse.’ He said ‘I got a backup horse. Hey, why don’t you jump on him? See if you can get along with him,’” Romero said.

Not only did the act save Romero’s run, but it also helped her win the event.

Romero said, “As you go across the United States, the CMSA is a huge family. I could be in Mississippi and break down and mounted shooters will come and get me. They’ll help you out in any way. It’s one of the most family-oriented and helpful sports out here.”

Before COVID, the CMSA held three state championships in Socorro, and the scheduling of the rodeo complex didn’t fit this year, but Romero hopes the event will be held here next year.

Mounted shooting is a demanding sport for riders and horses who need to become one with their timing. A high level of trust needs to be developed before an athlete entirely drops the reins and begins pumping cartridges and firing at the balloon targets.

The cartridges are crimped at the end, don’t have a projectile, and are loaded with a small amount of black powder. The slight shotgun effect of the powder, as it leaves the gun’s barrel, is what pops the balloon.

It’s perfectly safe to be seated 30 feet away in the stands watching the sport, and the patterns and distances to the arena’s walls are considered and measured before the shooting gets underway.

Roswell’s Mark Marley is president and one of three co-founders of the CMSA, and he’s seen his organization take root across the country. Marley has helped nurture two decades of growth, from giving public speeches to simple conversations with a clerk while paying for gas. Kaley Salopek takes dead aim during the Chile Shoot in Socorro on Saturday.

Drawing questions and promoting your sports isn’t too hard if one is dressed up in mounted shooting because it does strike a person’s curiosity.

“We had run down to the gas station; we went in, and there’s a lady there who just starts asking questions. It’s just getting the word out there. In the grand spectrum of equine sports, it’s new. We’re only about 22 years old, so getting that information out there is important to us,” Marley said.

Marley got involved in the sport through a close family connection.

“My daughter’s the one that got us shooting, and we have three generations shooting a lot of times. The people are great. And it’s also exciting for someone watching. It’s a lot of fun and a good safe thing to do with your horse,” Marley said.

The CMSA has more than 23,000 followers on its Facebook page, and there are links there to learn more about the sport.