The sound of gunfire from .45 caliber pistols erupted in the rodeo ring at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on Thursday morning, but no bullets were fired and the only damage was to hundreds of balloons.

Puffs of smoke filtered through Barnett Arena as dozens of rodeo riders with two six-shooters on their hips took a turn riding a horse through a maze of balloons and fired blank charges to burst them as they galloped by.

They were competing in the mounted shooting competition, which is a new event during Rodeo Rapid City being hosted by Sutton Rodeo during the Black Hills Stock Show this week.

Under the pressure of a time clock, each contestant enters the ring atop a horse, then rides a set pattern through and around a barrel and small posts that hold the balloons.

As the rider approaches a balloon with one hand on the reins and the other holding the pistol, they fire to pop the balloon. A tricky moment arises as they make a turn at the end of the ring, and after emptying one gun, they then must holster it before grabbing the second gun while maintaining control of the horse.

As they finish their turn, they must shoot the next balloon almost immediately before sprinting to the finish line while bursting four more balloons at break-neck speed.

They must use two guns, each of which has five blank rounds, and may not shoot at a balloon more than once. A missed balloon adds five seconds to their performance time.  

First up on Thursday morning was Amy Soll, a 38-year-old agronomist for a fertilizer firm who also farms with her husband and children in Bancroft, Neb.

Soll said she prepared for the competition by repeatedly practicing drawing and firing her weapon to improve her gunslinger speed, sometimes while watching TV in her living room.

"To get faster, you practice with your holster and draw and shoot and shoot and shoot," Soll said. "We stand and shoot our guns in our home all the time." 

Soll and the others also must find a horse that isn't jarred by the sound of gunfire or spooked by the burst of smoke from the pistol. Soll puts plugs in the ears of her horse, an Appaloosa quarter horse named Gremlin. "Some take to it, and some don't," she said of her horses.

Once in the ring, Soll said she has only one thought: "Shoot clean, shoot clean, shoot clean."

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Soll had a solid outing Thursday, missing one balloon and taking a final time of 23.43 seconds. Moments later, she was already aching to get back on her horse. "I can't wait to go again," she said.

Mounted shooting became a bona fide rodeo event some years ago after ranchers began to realize how fun it was to shoot from horseback.

The rodeo announcer, Alan Odden, told the audience how bored ranchers would put pumpkins on fence posts, then ride by and shoot them off. As they improved, they went to apples, "and they got so good that they eventually went to cherry pits," Odden said.

Eventually, the formal event was born and is now performed at rodeos around the country. Although riders like Soll practice their quick draws regularly, it never gets easy to perform in the ring.

Keith Benz of Bismarck, N.D., rode flawlessly through the ring on Thursday, bursting all 10 balloons as he covered the course cleanly in only 12.93 seconds.

But moments later, the difficulty of the event was on full display as expert mounted shootist Don Evans of Glendive, Mont., a two-time world champion in the event, had a little trouble switching pistols on the turn and missed a balloon on his flight to the finish line. Evans took a five-second penalty and ended up with a time above 18 seconds.

A second round of mounted shooting is set for 1 p.m. today (it is open and free for the public) with the finals set for 7:30 tonight during the PRCA rodeo at the civic center. Rodeo tickets are available at gotmine.com or at the gate.

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