How to Train a Mounted Shooting Horse
By Allen Lober, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer
Introduction - Preparing Your Horse For Mounted Shooting
If you can ride a horse at least at the level of a competent pleasure rider, have the use of both your hands, you and your horse can learn the skills of a Cowboy Action Shooter (CAS). Mounted shooting as an equestrian sport has been gaining popularity. It combines horsemanship and shooting skills and is a lot of fun.
Photo of MSA World Champion CAS Robert Carlson. Photo by Amy Spivey used with permission.
It is not magic. In fact it is not all that hard to do. I have been riding since I was in the 7th grade and I am now in my 50s. I have trained all of my personal horses over the last 30 years to accept having firearms fired from the saddle.
However, while I have some experience riding, training, showing and keeping horses, I do not consider myself a professional horse trainer. I am just another horse nut who has combined my love of riding horses with another favorite pastime, shooting firearms. I also happen to have been the lucky recipient of some early horse instruction from a former army NCO who as a trooper in the Cavalry when the army still mounted soldiers on horses. Not all the things Sgt Williams, (USA, Cavalry, Ret.) taught youngsters at the Ft. Benning stables was on the syllabus, or known to our parents. Thank heaven.
I have outlined my process for training my horses for mounted shooting below. This method has worked for me for years. I divided the article into two parts. The first is some background on the firearms you will be using. The second part is my detailed steps for training the horse.
Part I - Selecting the Proper Firearm
What type of firearm can be fired from horseback?
Notice that I am speaking of shooting firearms? Not just pistols. All manner of long-guns can be safely fired from horseback. To keep the scope of this article reasonable, I will limit this discussion to pistols. Pistols have some unique features and dangers. These qualities are magnified when a fired from horseback. Rifles and shotguns deserve a separate discussion, but much of the training employed teaching a horse to quietly and calmly accept the discharge of any firearm which gives off a loud, scary noise, close to the ears, will apply to firing long weapons. I will address firing shot-guns and rifles in future articles, if there is any interest in that area.
What background does the rider need before they get into mounted shooting?
If you have little or no experience in handling guns I would highly recommend you take a few classes in gun safety and shooting.
Put in some practice time at your local firing range to improve your skills. You should be comfortable handling the weapon first before you add the horse into the picture.
What type of pistol and what caliber should you start with?
I recommend the novice shooter start with a small caliber pistol. Ideally, start with a .22 caliber. This caliber has much to recommend it. First, there is absolutely no recoil. Cost is also a factor; the .22 Long Rifle is the least expensive caliber to shoot. The .22 is ubiquitous. It also comes in many different variations that are very useful when training a horse to accept a gun being fired in close proximity. From the perspective of your horse, it is also the quietest cartridge generally available.
I recommend you start with a single action only revolver. These pistols are frequently referred to as old fashioned cowboy pistols. Everyone who ever watched a Western will immediately recognize the distinctive profile of the Colt model 1873 SSA (SSA=Single Action Army). There are dozens of Colt SSA clones on the market to choose from, many are made of the highest quality material and workmanship.
There are many used genuine Colt single action .22's on the market, but even used Colt's tend to be more expensive than the best made clones. After all, when you buy a "Colt" you are to some extent paying for the Colt name. If you want a "shooter" that will not cause cardiac arrest when you drop it in a mud puddle from a lope,( and sooner or later you will do that , or worse) start with a visit your local gun store, tell the sales staff you want a Colt clone in .22 caliber, with at least a 6 inch barrel. You might start with a Ruger Single-Six. Ruger, Cimarron Arms, Taurus, and a dozen others market superb clones of the original Colt SSA in .22 caliber.
Whatever make you purchase be sure you get both the standard .22 Long Rifle cylinder, and the interchangeable .22 magnum cylinder. With a little careful shopping you should be able locate a Colt SSA clone, in good to excellent condition, with two cylinders, one for the .22 Long Rifle and another for the .22 magnum, for less than $300.
A major reason I recommend that you start with a .22 is the wide range of types of .22 cartridges to choose from. The .22 is made in "Long", "Long Rifle", "Short" and a neat little cartridge called a ".22CB" or ".22 caps." The .22 magnum is a .22 diameter bullet, but as explained below the .22 magnum has a longer brass case and will not fit into a .22 Long Rifle chamber.
If you own a single action Colt clone, you will want to start gun training your horse with the .22 CB cap. This particular .22 cartridge shoots standard .22 bullets- the lead projectile. The .22 bullet itself can weigh anything from a 32 gr. up to a 40gr. and should be the round nosed lead bullet type. However, the .22 CB, or .22 cap, has no powder charge; the bullet is propelled only by the expansion of gas as the primer burns. For this reason the .22 CB cap makes hardly any noise. It is the ideal cartridge to use when you first train a horse to accept firearms.
The .22 CB cap is also a slow bullet; it will not break the sound barrier. Standard velocity .22 Long Rifle cartridges exceed the speed of sound. When the .22 bullet breaks the sound barrier it creates a sonic boom. A small boom mind you, more of a clap. But when training a horse to accept a firearm being shot from the horses back, you want to minimize all the sound you can. At least at first.
The .22 CB cap has a distinctive appearance due to the lack of a powder charge. It is much shorter than the .22 Long, Long Rifle, and even the .22 Short. The .22 CB or "cap" has a very short brass case and for that reason the .22 CB cap will only fire from a weapon designed to shoot the .22 cap.
Most single action pistol cylinders in .22 caliber will accept both .22 Shorts and the .22 CB cap. Semi-automatics which feed cartridges from a magazine will not function with .22 caps or .22 Shorts.
Do not be deceived by the .22 CB caps' lack of velocity, or report when fired. Any gun, any bullet, can kill, regardless of it diminutive size, lack of sound or minimal velocity. Every firearm and every cartridge is a potentially lethal device. Treat ever cartridge and every weapon with the respect it deserves.
Difference between single action and double action weapons
I recommend the single action only type of pistol for use on horseback for a number of reasons, not the least of which is safety. With double action revolvers and semi-autos it is possible to fire the pistol by a mere pull on the trigger. With a single action pistol the hammer is first pulled back until it locks into the cocked position. The weapon is then discharged by a separate pull on the trigger.
The only way to fire a single action pistol is to first manually cock the weapon by pulling the hammer back until the hammer locks into the cocked position. The action of pulling the hammer back simultaneously turns the cylinder so as to rotate the entire cylinder until a chamber holding an unfired cartridge is directly underneath the hammer. When the trigger is pulled the hammer falls, striking the cartridge, the primer is crushed by the hammer/hammer pin which ignites the primer and the weapon discharges.
It is the simplest, and the safest, revolver to use. I do not recommend that anyone with less than expert experience with both horses and pistols attempt to fire double action, or semi-automatic, pistols from horseback.
Later, after you and your horse have progressed to the point where you can shoot a .22 CB from the mounted position, and all gates, you will step-up from the CB cap to the Short, then to the Long Rifle, then graduate to the .22 magnum. You will find that the .22 magnum will have a report from a 6 or 7 inch single action revolver that equals the sound of a .38 special. When your horse will accept this level of sound you can move onto the bigger cowboy action calibers such a .38, .44, 44-40, and .45 LC.
When you and your horse are ready to move from a standard .22 Long rifle to the .22 magnum you will have to change the cylinders in the SSA revolver to accept the .22 magnum cartridge. The .22 magnum, as the name implies, holds a larger powder charge than any other .22 rim fire cartridge. To accommodate the extra powder, and to avoid loading the more powerful magnum .22 into a standard .22 Long Rifle firearm, the .22 magnum cartridge has a longer brass case. This should make it impossible to load a magnum .22 into a .22 Long Rifle cylinder. It is possible, but not recommended, to load and fire the .22 Long Rifle in a .22 magnum cylinder.
The selection of your pistol of choice should include a weapon that can be safely "dry fired". Pulling the trigger and allowing the hammer to drop onto the empty cylinder is referred to as dry firing. All of the modern Ruger Single Action pistols incorporate what they call a "transfer bar".
The original Colt design worked to fire the cartridge by the action of the hammer falling onto the center of the cartridge. The Colt original hammer had a spur on the face of the hammer that strikes the primer. The original Colt design single action pistol should NOT be dry fired. Repeat dry firing can damage or break the hammer. The modern clones have a new system that avoids this danger, and others. Such as the hammer pin resting on a loaded cartridge when all six cylinders are loaded.
Many of the new model SSA clones avoid the limitations of the original Colt design by the use of a "transfer bar" instead of a hammer pin to ignite the cartridge primer. The transfer bar absorbs the impact of the hammer fall. Weapons with this ignition system may be safely dry fired. It is also safe to carry a pistol with this ignition design with all six cylinders loaded. The "transfer bar" retracts when the trigger is not pulled. So even if you hit the hammer with a rock the hammer cannot impact the cartridge. Should you drop your pistol when it is fully loaded and should the hammer happen to be the point of impact the weapon with a transfer bar will not discharge. For the novice this is the only type of single action pistol I can recommend.
A primer is nothing more than a small metal shell with something like fulminate of mercury painted inside it. Fulminate of mercury explodes into fire when struck a sharp blow. Older cartridges used this chemical to ignite the main powder charge. Because fulminate of mercury is highly corrosive it is not used anymore.
Modern cartridges use a non-corrosive chemical but the principle is unchanged. When the primer is crushed by the force of the hammer pin the primer material (the fulminate of mercury or a modern substitute chemical that is noncorrosive) is ignited. The primer, when crushed suddenly, produces a spark. That spark instantly ignites the powder charge inside the brass cartridge. It is this burning powder, with the corresponding expansion of the burning gas from the powder, which propels the bullet down the barrel.
A rim fire works on the same principles, except the primer chemical is painted onto the inside rim of the brass cartridge and it does not have a separate primer. Accordingly, the hammer of a .22 rim fire will strike the case rim, not the center of the cartridge, to ignite the primer chemical which in turn ignites the main powder charge. A "transfer bar" eliminates the pin on the face of the hammer. In the place of the hammer pin the pistol has a "transfer bar" built into the frame of the weapon, immediately under the location where the hammer strikes when the trigger is pulled.
This transfer bar receives the force of the hammer fall and transfers that force to a pin built into the pistol. That pin then hits the primer, either on the rim, as in the .22 rim fire, or on the center of the cartridge as with larger caliber, center fire, cartridges.
PART II - Preparing Your Horse
OK, you have selected your pistol. You now own a .22 caliber single action "cowboy" pistol and a mountain of .22 ammo, even some .22 CB caps. Do you jump on and start shooting? Well, maybe, if you are young and reckless. However, I do not recommend that method. There is a better way that involves desensitizing the horse to the sound of firearms.
Did you know that the US cavalry located the horse stables close to firing ranges? Did you know that the cavalry scheduled rifle practice for the troops in the early morning, often before chow time? The boot recruit probably thought it was just another mean act by the training sergeant. In fact, cavalry stables were located close to rifle ranges in order to get the horses used to the sound of gunfire. To the extent possible you should duplicate training methods the US army has proven works.
Start by getting a helper to feed your horses the morning ration of grain, hay, or pellets. When the horses are eating, and you are at least 150 feet away, fire the pistol, slowly, into a safe bullet stop. A 50 gallon barrel of sand works great as a bullet stop.
You should shoot the pistol slowly while the horses are eating and stop when they are finished with the grain, hay, pellets or whatever they are munching on. It is easy to fire the weapon too fast, so count to three between each shoot. Also after the first week or so, vary the time between discharging the gun a few seconds.
The point is that the horse should associate the gunfire with food; the animal should remain relaxed when the gun is actually being fired. Wait a few seconds between shoots. Stop. Wait. Start again. Repeat this process for at least a week. Continue this every day and until the horses do not raise their heads out of the feed bucket to look around for the sound. When the horse fails to raise his or her head out of the feed bucket after the gun is fired, you have reached a point when the training can progress to the next level.
At this point move 10 to 20 feet closer to the barn. Each horse will react differently to the sound of gunfire. Usually my horses would begin to ignore the .22 pistol after only one or two days. Obviously if you can do this multiple times a day, morning and evening, the horse will accept this new sound faster.
If your horse does not begin to ignore the gunfire after 3 or 4 days, do not be dismayed. I think my horses adjust faster than most because gunfire is not new to them. I have a small pistol range about 400 yards from my horse barn. While pistol fire from that distance is audible, it is not loud enough to startle even a green horse. Just hearing a gun go off, even at some distance helps the horse accept gunfire at much closer ranges.
Continue the shoot-feed routine until the horse keeps his or head down in the feed bucket while you fire the pistol. When the horse adjusts at each distance, repeat the process, each time moving gradually closer to the horse each time. At some point the horse will begin to watch you, when you are close enough. The horse will figure out the connection and associate the gun fire with getting feed. You want this.
The horse should associate the sound of the gun with your presence. You are not a threat to the horse. The sound of the gun will become familiar and will not be a threat either. When the food-gunfire association is made the sound of gun fire will not be such a tremendous threat to the horse. Gradually move closer and closer to your barn as you continue to fire the pistol during each feeding until you are shooting the pistol immediately adjacent to the barn.
If possible, keep yourself in view of the horse when you are shooting. When you are firing a .22 cap 10 to 15 feet away from the horse, while it is eating, and it only occasionally glances at you, you and the horse are ready to progress to the next step.
Mounted and Dismounted Training
You can start the mounted training phase while the horse is still getting accustomed to the distant ground fire. Start the mounted phase by riding normally with your UNLOADED pistol, in the holster on your waist. At some quiet moment, while at the walk, draw the pistol and index the weapon. Indexing is just the rotation of the cylinder while the hammer is being cocked. You will hear the noise of the revolver as the cylinder turns and pins and springs inside the pistol are placed under pressure. A Colt will make 4 audible clicks as the hammer is drawn back into the firing position. Other models may make 3 or 4 audible clicks.
Let the horse smell the pistol. Show it to your horse. Rub his head or neck while holding the pistol in that hand. Do this repeatedly until the horse ignores the pistol as a new or scary object. At first just cock the pistol. Lower the hammer manually. To do this you press the trigger while holding the hammer and gradually, quietly, let the hammer drop into place. You are gradually getting the horse familiar with the sound of the weapon.
When your horse has accepted the sound of cocking your pistol, the "click-click-click" of the springs being placed under pressure as the weapons is cocked, move on to "dry-firing". First make sure the weapon is unloaded. In fact you should not have any cartridges on you or in the pistol during this phase. The unintended discharge of a loaded pistol can scare the hay right out of the horse, you, your riding partners, and worse, it can be fatally dangerous.
The key to training a horse to accept gun fire at close range is to take each step gradually, letting the horse know it will come to no harm as a result of your firearm. During this phase it is best to leave all your cartridges in the box, locked up back at the ranch house, not in your pocket or in the gun belt loops.
When you reach the point where your horse has accepted the pistol being fired with .22 Long Rifle bullets from as close as 10 to 15 feet, you are ready to fire the pistol while the horse is on a halter. I usually take my horses out for a walk on a halter and let them graze grass for 10 to 20 minutes each day. I do this just to give them an opportunity to nibble grass in my lawn or some other area they generally are denied access to. They enjoy the change; they know they are eating forbidden fruit. They seem to nibble faster when the grass is in an area they can see every day, but is not part of their normal paddock or pasture graze.
When your horse has been feed the morning ration, and you have fired a dozen or so .22 Long Rifle cartridges from 10 -15 feet away with no discernable reaction from your horse, step down to the .22 CB cap and while you are letting your horse nibble grass on a lead line, fire a .22 CB cap in a safe direction, away from the horses head. This is the most dangerous step. Your horse will no doubt raise his or her head and look a little startled. Wait until the head goes back down for another bite and repeat this process.
You will find that after three or four .22 CB caps are fired while the horse is on a lead rope that the horse is more interested in the grass that the gunshots and will begin to ignore you. Just be patient. Each horse will require different amounts of time to adjust. If you are not yet comfortable with your pistol, or handling both the lead rope and the weapon at the same time, get a helper to either hold the rope or to do the shooting. The danger is that you will focus all your attentions on the weapon or the horse. You need diligence at this step. Do not think you must do this alone. Get a friend to help.
While walking and grazing your horse, wear your pistol in the same holster you will wear when you ride with the weapon. I prefer a right handed cross-draw, on a belt at the same level as my pants belt. Being right handed this holster is carried high on my left waist, on my belt line.
I strongly advise against one of the so called fast-draw rigs that have the pistol tied down low on your hip. This type of holster rig is a made-by-TV fiction.
People, now and 150 years ago, who carry pistols in belted holsters for business will almost always wear the pistol high at the waist- not down on the thigh. After you have ridden in a car with 2 lb holstered pistol, or galloped any distance, or ridden for 8 hours up and down a couple of Colorado's mountains with a side arm strapped to your leg, further convincing regarding the proper location of your holster will be unnecessary. It may look cool to have a fast-draw rig, but you will find this type of holster is uncomfortable, and in truth, no faster to draw a pistol from than a holster high on your waist.
Many modern holsters have a leather strap that will button down over the hammer, holding the pistol securely in the holster. I have used holsters with and without a separate button-down strap and have never had a pistol fall out of my holster while riding with either. It is a personal choice but the button-down strap is an extra safety measure you may wish to consider when you select a holster.
You are now firing your pistol on a regular basis while your horse is eating and the horse is calm when you do so. You have been taking the horse for a graze on the lawn on a lead rope while you dry fire the pistol. So far the horse has failed to become startled by this activity. You have progressed slowly, step by step. You are riding your horse with your pistol in its holster and from time to time you are taking the pistol out of its holster and dry firing it. Your horse is not threatened by this and shows no negative reactions. So far so good.
Now it is time to increase the noise level your horse will accept. Do this by going back to the stage when you were firing the .22 CB caps from 150 feet. Do these same steps over again, but this time do it with .22 Long Rifle cartridges. You will find the modest increase in noise minimal and progress will be faster. When you are shooting the .22 Long Rifle cartridges from 10 to 15 feet away from the barn with no reaction other than a cursory glance from your horse you are ready for the next step.
Shooting on a Lead Rope
You have accustomed your horse to the sound of a .22 Long Rifle being fired while the horse eats. You have been dry firing your pistol both on the ground and while in the saddle.
Now it is time for the next big step- firing the pistol while the horse is on a lead rope and you are holding the rope! If you have taken your time, this will be anti-climactic. Expect the horse to shy a bit because the horse has not been this close to the gun fire before.
When the horseís is head is down in the grass, dry fire the weapon 5 or 6 times. Then put one .22 CB cap into the cylinder and fire it into the ground, pointed away from the horse.
Expect the horse to raise itsí head, maybe even back away a few steps. Speak to your horse and reassure him or her to calm down. Repeat this process until the horse does not raise his head when you fire the pistol.
You will be surprised at how quickly your horse will accept this.
After you have done the exercise above at least a dozen times on as many days, switch from a .22 CB cap to a .22 Long Rifle. When you get to the point where you can fire a standard .22 Long Rifle while your horse is on a lead line without objection from the horse, you are ready for the next step; firing your pistol from the saddle. But here is an important point. You should continue the gun fire exercises from 10 to 15 feet from the stall when you horse is getting his morning and, if applicable, his evening meal as well.
Shooting From the Saddle
By this time your horse has accepted a .22 pistol, loaded with the louder Long Rifle cartridge, being fired while it eats feed and while it grazes on grass on a lead rope. You are riding with your pistol and from time to time you dry fire the pistol while you ride.
If you know another rider with a "gun-broke" horse now is the time to go for a ride together. Explain that you want to fire your pistol from the saddle for the first time. If you are right handed have your riding buddy ride on the near side, just along side of you. Draw your pistol, cock it and aim for the soft dirt you have chosen ahead of time to impact the bullet. DO NOT SHOOT INTO ROCKS, WATER or any other hard surface.
The .22 Long Rifle with travel more than a mile and will ricochet nearly that distance as well. Use the .22 CB caps for your first few shooting exercises from the saddle. Be prepared for an objection from your horse. I have never had a horse do more than jump around a bit, maybe try to break gait from a walk to a trot, or turn in a circle, but nothing more serious than that.
If you take some time and introduce your horse to gun fire gradually you will be pleasantly surprised at the lack of a response. If however your horse has a major fit when you fire a .22 CB cap the first time, back up the training and start again. If the horse only steps to the side a little after you fire the pistol the first time keep riding. Wait a few minutes and start again from the point when you were dry firing the pistol. When you horse has regained composure fire the pistol with another .22 CB cap.
You will find the horse's response to be less and less each time as the horse learns the load noise is just that, a noise. The horse is smarter than most of us think they are. They can and do readily learn that when the gun goes "BANG" and nothing hurt them, that they are not in danger of being eaten by the horse monsters. Gradually they will accept this new noise.
After some time any horse will learn to ignore the sound of your .22 CB cap. As with most horse training, the trick is to gradually increase the noise level. After the horse has accepted the .22 CB cap cartridge being fired from the saddle, switch from the .22 CB caps to the .22 Long Rifle. Then move on to .22 magnum rounds. By the time your horse has accepted a .22 magnum you can rapidly move up to a big bore pistol such as a .44-40 or .45 Long Colt. The .22 magnum is actually louder than the standard .38 cartridge.
When you fire your pistol from the saddle be careful of your aim. Make sure the bullet will impact a safe surface. Something soft like sand, never water or rocks. The risk of a ricochet is too great.
Shoot to the side, at 90 degrees from the horses head. Aim down into your target with your arm fully extended, elbow slightly bent.
Do not attempt to fire your pistol directly to the front of your horse. It was considered a mark of disgrace for a cavalryman to have a one-eared horse. Everyone would know the trooper shot his own mounts ear off and that trooper would spend the rest of his cavalry career living that down. Beyond the embarrassment factor, who wants to live with the knowledge they injured a horse? Horses raise their heads for all sorts of unpredictable reasons. Unless you are in a charge against a hostile force there is rarely a real need for a frontal shot from horseback anyway.
In over 40 years of riding I have never found it necessary to fire directly to my front, over my horses head. Later when you are getting ready for a CAS competition or exhibition shooting you, and your horse, will need to know how to fire your weapon in a 360 degree orbit. For this article I will limit my suggestions to the basics.
If you have reached the point where you can fire your weapon from the saddle, safely, without creating a situation or upsetting your mount you have accomplished a great deal. When you ride into the Lone Pine Valley, and a snake or a cougar or a bear makes a sudden appearance, you will not panic. Ride away from the danger if you can. If you cannot, you will be equipped, and your horse will be trained, to take appropriate action safely. If you never have to fire your pistol out of necessity, you will ride with more confidence, certain in the knowledge that if you had to use your weapon, you could safely do so.
I highly recommend that you wear sound protection whenever you discharge any firearm. If you do not you will end up like me, nearly deaf in my right ear and not so good out of my left ear either. I prefer the small rubber insert type issued by the military. They are cheap and easy to use. The ear muff type is more effective, but when around horses I do not want all of my hearing blocked.
Some horses are very sensitive to the sound of firearms and for these horses I recommend providing ear protection for your horse during training and competition. If gunfire can damage a human ear it can also damage a horse's ear. There are many inexpensive ear plugs for horses available on the commercial market.
The one caveat to hearing protection for horses is when you are out in the wilderness. I do not muffle my horse's ears when I ride in the backcountry. In those times I want my horse to have the full extent of his sense of hearing because often a horse will hear a danger before the human.
Firing in the backcountry is limited to emergency situations so it's not routine or frequent. For example, I frequently ride in areas where prairie rattlesnakes are more than merely abundant, they are everywhere. The prairie rattlesnake is an aggressive species and will not retreat as a first option. I have witnessed many of these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
On more than a few occasions I have witnessed this species actually move toward me and my horse rather than retreat. This species also has the annoying habit of striking first and rattling later. With all respect to this creatures right to exist, if there is no way to get around the snake, when it comes down to a choice between me , my horse , my riding companions or the snake, I am going to act to protect myself, my companions, and my horse.
Whether you want to become a Cowboy Action Shooter and compete in Mounted Shooting events, or simply acquire another horse related skill, learning how to use a handgun and shoot from the saddle is a fun, rewarding pastime. It is intimidating, but only because of the mystic surrounding guns. Done slowly and with caution it can be a safe, fun sport and is easily within the skill set of most pleasure horse riders and trail horses.
The benefits to both horse and rider are impossible to calculate. Have you ever ridden a horse close to a road when a car backfires? When that happened to me my horse simple took another step without missing a beat. My mount did not react because my horse was trained to permit me to shoot from the saddle. I also can ride my horses anywhere I want to on the 4th of July without concern.
The rewards of owning a gun trained horse are not always predictable. Besides, what could be more fun than popping balloons with a pistol at the lope? The only thing I can think of is chopping watermelons in half that have been mounted on four foot poles, at the gallop, with my 1860 cavalry saber. But that is material for another article. Stay tuned.