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Horsemanship and marksmanship put to the test in cowboy competition

Union Leader Correspondent

July 11. 2017 11:42PM
Smoke billows after Rob Baratta of Londonderry, astride his mare, Ginny, fired his six-shooter and broke a balloon atop the pole his horse is rounding. Baratta, a high school teacher, bested 38 other competitors to win the New Hampshire Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association Championship on Saturday in Gilford. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

GILFORD -- When county singers Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson crooned “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” Steve Amato wasn’t listening.

So anxious was he to play Wild West as a kid, he’d imagine his bicycle was a horse. He’d even stop pedaling at times to offer his mechanical steed water.

Amato still plays cowboy on weekends, when he trades his suit and tie for blue jeans, a western shirt, Stetson and a matched set of .45 caliber single-action revolvers.

The Stoneham, Mass., attorney, who in his tenderfoot life defends clients in toxic tort litigation, is among a growing number of Cowboy Mounted Action Shooting enthusiasts.

Sue Frost of Weare, seen here with her horse, Nitro, has been competing in cowboy mounted shooting for 13 years. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

Contestants come dressed in modern Western garb or traditional 1800s attire. The men wear collarless shirts and high-waisted, button-up pants. Some of the women don long dresses or prairie skirts.

They arm themselves accordingly, donning six-shooters any late 1800s sodbuster would recognize, each cylinder of the gun loaded with a black-powder blank. Competitors then saddle up to ride one of 50 randomly selected courses, firing at mid-gallop, aiming to bust 10 balloons set along the way for targets.

The sport requires a blend of horsemanship and marksmanship, said Sue Frost of Weare, who’s been competing 13 seasons. Riders are scored on time and accuracy.

Speed is important, but accuracy rules the day as each missed shot earns the rider a five-second penalty. So does dropping a pistol. There’s a 10-second penalty for riding off course, and, sakes alive, should a rider fall off a horse, that’s a 60-second penalty.

A typical pattern is run in 15 to 35 seconds, so assessed penalties can quickly put a rider out of the running, Frost said.

When she is not keeping the books for her husband’s plumbing and heating business or New Boston Truck and Equipment, Frost can be found honing her skills.

People come to the sport for many reasons, and a fascination with the Old West is no small part of it.

As a kid, Amato was transfixed watching TV westerns and had a holster set and matching cap guns. The horse would come later. “I never rode a horse until I was 39 years old,” he said.

Amato first heard about cowboy mounted shooting at the barn where he boarded his horse. Nine years later, he travels nearly every weekend to an event to compete astride “CB,” an American Paint.

Cathie Hatrick-Anderson and her horse “Ruger” compete in a Cowboy Mounted Action Shooting event held in Gilford, July 8-9. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

Amato concedes he’s even been known to reschedule his duty as a Navy reservist in the Judge Advocate General Corps so that he can join in the fun.

Shooting from horseback would be difficult enough with a modern sidearm; the period revolvers add another dimension to the competition.

A single-action revolver must have its hammer drawn back each time it’s fired, Amato explains, and the black-powder blank also has very limited range. The best distance to shoot from is about 10 feet from a balloon, he says.

Closer isn’t necessarily better, since the blast pattern doesn’t have time to spread out, making a miss and a five-second penalty more likely.

Dina Baratta of Londonderry, president of the Northeast Six-Shooters, said she got involved eight years ago, after her husband heard about it in a tack shop. Now when she is not working as a high school guidance counselor, Baratta is busy training her Appaloosa mare Cutie.

“People told me I should give up on her,” she said, hitching the 17-year-old horse to the trailer after a 12.817-second run in which she hit all 10 targets.

Hard riding and straight shooting paid off for her husband, Rob, on Saturday as he clinched the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association New Hampshire Championship at Lakes Region Riding Academy in Gilford.

More information about the sport can be found at

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