DeKALB – With each pop from his pistol, 11-year-old Austin “Tuff Cookie” Cook claimed another balloon with the help of his galloping horse.
Although his guns were cap pistols and he didn't actually pop any balloons, Austin still considers himself a cowboy, as did the 25 others who shot real pistols Saturday as part of the National Day of the Cowboy celebration at Amber Sun Acres in Malta.
The event Saturday was Austin's second since he and his dad, Doug “Dusty Pockets” Cook, 52, of Malta started two years ago.
“I really like to ride horses, and I look cool,” Austin said, adding he has three years until he can fire a real pistol.
Those competing carried two pistols, both single action revolvers that were around in the 1800s. While riding their horse, the cowboys shoot blanks to pop 10 balloons while trying to be as accurate and as fast as possible.
“You're on a roller coaster shooting targets along the way,” said Doug Anderson, a North Aurora resident who's been a mounted shooter for six years.
Riders have to follow a specific path through each course, shooting five white balloons arranged in different patterns, before moving on to five red balloons in a straight line. The set up comes from one of 60 different courses, said Mel Hass, the vice president of the Northern Illinois Outlaws cowboy mounted shooting club.
Hass, 62, who goes by his cowboy alias "Lyons Creek Cal," has been in the cowboy scene for 18 years. When he first started, the Shabonna resident said the sport was mainly comprised of older men, but has changed over time to include people of different ages as well as a steady stream of women.
Karen Lerette, 53, of Compton, started mounted shooting with her husband in 2008 after seeing the Northern Illinois Outlaws at a Western show. Lerette, also known as "Angel," said it took a little less than a year from the time she decided to try the sport to when she shot her first balloon in competition.
She said the trick to the sport isn't believing in her abilities.
“The hardest part is having a horse I feel confident on,” she said.
Trusting a horse becomes an even larger part of the sport, Hass said, when competing with a rifle or shotgun. In those competitions, the riders either hold on to the reins with a pinkie or not at all.
“That's when you know you've gotten good at the sport,” he said.
South Beloit resident Chuck Bright, 71, said after 13 years of riding, shooting a rifle while riding a horse still excites him.
“It's kind of like letting loose the steering wheel going 100 mph,” Bright said.