Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Need for Steed

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Champion mounted markswoman Annie Bianco-Ellett knows her shoot.

It’s Sunday morning at the Arizona State Championships of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association. One after another, the cowboys and cowgirls ride and shoot. While they wait for the signal, their restless mounts execute tight little circles, seeming almost to pirouette with eagerness. At last the buzzer sounds, and the contestants gallop into the covered arena at Horseshoe Park in Queen Creek, toward a diagonal row of 10 tall white pylons, each with a red or blue balloon on top.


Each rider draws a single-action .45 revolver from the hip and blasts away, bursting the balloons with a “crimped load” of black powder. At the end of the first row, the horse wheels, and the rider draws a second .45 and charges down a second row, picking off red and blue balloons with bipartisan dispassion, completing a sort of figure eight. The sparse crowd in the bleachers applauds. Fresh balloons inflate from within the pylons to take the place of their massacred predecessors.

One of the cowgirls, decked out in stylish Wranglers and a plaid shirt, starts her run astride a young, buckskin-colored mount called Pistol. She draws her .45 and fires, disintegrating her first row of targets with dazzling accuracy and speed. She draws her other .45 as Pistol heads back. On the return ride, she misses one balloon, the last.

After the run, grinning, Annie Bianco-Ellett says she’s satisfied with the results. “He’s a young horse,” she explains, “and I’m training him. His time was good. That’s mostly what I’m concerned with today.”

Though she’s preparing for the CMSA Colt Winter Championships and two other major competitions, all taking place in the Valley in February, Bianco-Ellett has little left to prove in the sport. She’s been a multiple world and national champion both for CMSA (Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association) and for SASS (Single Action Shooting Society).

She is CMSA’s National Spokesperson and a member of its Hall of Fame, and a 2012 nominee for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. She appeared on TV shows like Country Music Television’s Made, Cowboy U and America’s Top Cowboy, and has done stunt riding for Hollywood. Each Memorial Day for the last three years, she visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Wrangler National Patriots Tour of Western industry celebrities.

Aspirants travel long distances to train at Bianco-Ellett’s Cave Creek ranch. She’s even been called upon to train a mounted sheriff’s posse in Texas in real-world, law enforcement applications of her skills.

She trains horses, too. “In the sport of mounted shooting, you’re only as good as your horse,” she says. “You can be an incredible shooter, but if you don’t have a horse that can get you through your patterns efficiently, you’re SOL.”

Many of Bianco-Ellett’s students are competing at the state championships, as well, including Californians Jerry Kurtz and Gretchen Walters. Middle-aged health-care administrators, they look at the moment like cast members from a particularly well-costumed production of Annie Get Your Gun.

phg1212 pfpo2 md“These guys are perfect examples of weekend warriors,” Bianco-Ellett says, adding proudly: “They’re winning their class.” CMSA boasts 11,000 members, and is now featured both in stand-alone events and as part of professional rodeos. Bianco-Ellett shares the founders’ hopes to someday see the sport at Madison Square Garden.

Bianco-Ellett grew up in Michigan and Texas, knowing early on she wanted to be a cowgirl. “Remember the little red outfits, with the fringe, the six-guns and the little cowboy hat? That was me,” she recalls. A family vacation out west cemented her passion. “I saw a tumbleweed blow across the road, and mustangs. Real mustangs! I thought, I’m going to move to Arizona someday.”

It took her a while – she studied marketing at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame, then worked for Colt Firearms. She was with Colt when she first discovered Cowboy Mounted Shooting, at an event in California. By pitching it to Colt as a halftime show promoting the company’s firearms at PRCA rodeos, she helped to popularize mounted shooting, which now claims to be the fastest growing equestrian sport in the country.

She also started training with CMSA founder Jim Rodgers, and ultimately settled in Cave Creek. Her ranch is not far from where Rodgers, a Cowboy Action Shooting veteran, began to experiment with a safe method for competitive mounted shooting, and where the first CMSA event was held, in 1992, at Ben Avery Shooting Facility in north Phoenix. “I didn’t end up out here until I was 34, but now I’m living my dream,” Bianco-Ellett says.

Said dream is facilitated by the ranch (“It was a modern house, but we kind of ranched it out”) she’s shared for 10 years with her husband, retired NHL player Dave Ellett, and daughter Sierra. The walls of the not-so-humble abode are lined with Western art, and just about every other available surface is given over to displaying some of the countless belt buckle trophies claimed by Bianco-Ellett.

But location is probably the place’s chief appeal. “Go one way,” she notes, “and there’s thousands of acres to trail ride in; go the other and you can ride to Starbucks.”

Still, Bianco-Ellett admits it wasn’t all smooth shooting. “When I first moved in and told some neighbors what I’d be doing, they didn’t like it,” she recalls. “We had to go to Cave Creek town council meetings, and we had the media helicopters flying over when I’d practice. What it came down to was, they came out with decibel readers.” The verdict: Bianco-Ellett’s afternoon shooting wasn’t nearly as noisy as the rumbling Harleys that frequent Cave Creek.

She also shares the ranch with several horses. Pistol’s champion sire, Costa, relaxes in his stable, not far from Bianco-Ellett’s arena. “He’s kind of an icon in the sport,” she says. But he’s 25 now, and semi-retired to a pleasant post-competition career of stud service.

“You’ve heard of ‘long in the tooth?’” she says, pulling open Costa’s lips to reveal huge Mr. Ed chompers. “That’s long in the tooth!”

A lifestyle like this isn’t cheap. “Horses are so expensive, if I can break even every year, I’m way ahead,” Bianco-Ellett says. She cites a recent road trip to Tennessee and Texas. “I won about three thousand dollars in a two-week trip, and between diesel and blown tires, I spent about four thousand dollars.”

But other rewards make it worthwhile. “I rode the horses in the moonlight last night, in my arena, thinking I’m the luckiest girl in the world.”

 

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