Riding a horse around a course with a pattern you haven’t been able to practice extensively is a challenge.

Add shooting 10 balloons while doing it as quickly as possible and you have something most people can’t do well, if at all.

Welcome to mounted shooting.

Ali Cooper runs the Tonto Basin Wild Bunch, a group of mounted shooters.

“Horsemanship is probably the No. 1 thing,” Cooper said. “And the ammo only sprays about 15 feet and spreads about six inches, so you have to be pretty accurate. Our guns are single action so every time you fire you have to pull the hammer back. Then you have to change guns halfway through and I change guns without looking because I have to be watching where my horse is going all the time.”

About 35 members of the Tonto Basin Wild Bunch kicked off their 2021 series of six races at Payson Event Center on Saturday, April 24.

They’ll return to PEC one Saturday a month for six months, with a two-day event as part of the Northern Gila County Fair ending the season.

The next event is at 10 a.m. on May 8; followed by 9 a.m. on June 5; 5 p.m. on July 17; 5 p.m. on Aug. 14; and 5 p.m. on Sept. 11; and 9 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 12.

The events are free to watch.

The Tonto Basin Wild Bunch was formed in 2019 and really got started last year when they moved to PEC. Membership has grown fourfold in a short time. About 10 people showed up for the first event at Lori and Bill Brown’s ranch, Brownsville, near Tonto Basin. The group is growing as word spreads.

“Not many people had heard of us,” Cooper said of the first event. “We have about 40 now.

“We moved to Payson Event Center because we have a lot of shooters coming from out of town and they need hotels and stalls, so Payson was a better fit. We had about 20 shooters for our first event in Payson. I’m hoping by September when we have our series finale at the fair, we’ll have upwards of 100 shooters.”

The Valley hosts many events.

“Most of the events are down in the Valley,” Cooper said. “I go to maybe 15 to 20 a year. But I just really felt like Gila County and Payson would be a great venue and I wanted shooters to come up here.”

Cooper was a teacher at Rim Country Middle School before moving into online teaching for Connections Academy this school year. She teaches eighth-grade math. Her husband, Shane Cooper, works for the Town of Payson’s streets department.

She used to compete in barrel racing before switching to mounted shooting.

“It’s more exciting for me; it’s more of a challenge,” she said.

Shooters use two 45 caliber single action revolvers with five rounds in each to pop 10 balloons, five each of two different colors. They’ll shoot the five balloons of one color, then switch to their other pistol for the other five. They also offer 410 shotgun competition because it’s the same ammunition.

They shoot theatrical blanks. The spark from the slow-burning black powder pops the balloons.

Most shooters and their horses wear earplugs.

“Probably 95% of the horses do wear earplugs, but some horses won’t let you put them in and they don’t mind the gunfire,” Cooper said.

The fastest time to complete the pattern with 10 popped balloons wins. Shooters get 5 seconds added to their time for missed balloons in most cases. And they aren’t allowed to claim any prize money.

“The fastest clean time wins,” Cooper said.

Winning times range from about 10 seconds for simple up-and-back patterns up to 15 or 20 for more complicated patterns. They switch patterns during the competition.

“We actually did five patterns (Saturday) — three pistols and two shotgun patterns,” Cooper said.

The entry fee for this first event was about $145 per shooter with a minimum of three rides — with an additional two rides for those in the shotgun competition.

These events wouldn’t happen without the help of balloon setters, who run onto the course to replace popped balloons with freshly-filled helium balloons between shooters. Several kids got a good workout on Saturday. And Cooper said she’s looking for more balloon setters.

“They’re the most important part,” she said. “I’m always looking for local clubs or teens to do it and it’s a paid gig. I pay like $300-$500 depending on how many shooters I have and how long I need them for.”

She said anyone can do it. It typically takes about 10 kids.

“Last year it was tough to find balloon setters because of COVID-19,” Cooper said. “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts weren’t allowed to be together. The Payson High School football players were my balloon setters for the (2020) fair.”

It’s important to learn on an experienced horse.

“It’s always best to start on an experienced horse, but some don’t have money for another horse,” Cooper said. “That’s like me, I trained on my horse because I already had him. So, you either need to change sports or change horses. There’s some shooters that are shooting on horses that are 20 to 30 years old because they’re good shooting horses. One was 26 on Saturday.”

An experienced mounted shooting horse is valuable.

“There’s kind of like a recycling of shooting horses,” Cooper said. “You might get on another horse and pass this one down. It’s hard to get better if the horse is too fast. It’s cool that your horse can run as fast as he can go, but can you shoot that fast? When you’re a beginner, you can’t.”

Cooper said Tonto Basin Wild Bunch will hold a beginner’s clinic open to 10 people at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 7 at Payson Event Center.

“All you have to do is have a horse and a good attitude,” she said.

Anyone wanting to participate in that clinic, join the Tonto Basin Wild Bunch, or find out about being a balloon setter, can call Cooper at 928-595-1182.

Contact the reporter at kmorris@payson.com

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