On a hot summer Saturday, more than 40 riders dressed in western garb, each sporting a pair of holstered six-shooters, wait their turn outside a dusty open air arena.
Ten orange traffic cones mark a course in the arena in northwest Minnesota. Atop each cone is a balloon. Riders must race through the course while shooting all 10 balloons. The best can run a course in about 10 seconds.
It's called cowboy mounted shooting, an event that attracts competitors with a hankering for the Wild West. A growing number of Minnesotans are competing in the little-known sport that combines horses, guns and split-second timing.
A CHALLENGING SPORT
The competition is intense for horse and rider, said Laura Pikop, a farmer and world champion cowboy mounted shooter.
"It's funny because a lot of times you realize you didn't breathe the entire time," said Pikop, of Stephen, Minn.
"You're holding your breath. I mean your horse is an athlete and really you are, too," said Pikop. "It's a lot of work keeping them in shape and yourself in shape to be at the top of your game."
Cowboy mounted shooters compete in six skill levels and are challenged by more than 60 different patterns. For each event, organizers choose four patterns at random, so riders never know which course they will be riding. World record times vary for each course.
Spectators have no need to worry as there are no flying bullets. Instead, riders use special shells loaded with black powder.
"Your horse is an athlete and really you are, too."
Competitors start at level one and advance by winning a specific number of competitions at each level.
At 33, Pikop is a level five competitor. She started competing in 2009 and won the world championship in her class last year.
Pikop, who grew up riding horses competitively, said cowboy mounted shooting might be the most challenging equestrian sport.
Riders have to guide their horses smoothly through the course. They must shoot five balloons with one gun, then draw a second revolver and shoot five more.
Pikop said a lot can go wrong in 10 to 15 seconds of frenzied activity.
"I've gone down a couple of times with my horse, and that's unexpected in the middle of a great run," she said. "Some days you just can't hit the broad side of a barn. It's extremely competitive. You can win or lose in a thousandth of a second."
At some competitions riders earn thousands of dollars in prizes. But for most riders it's about having a good time with friends.
Retired school principal Greg Lund of Twin Valley, Minn., said the sport grew out of a desire for a safe way to have some Wild West fun.
"It came from two guys out in Arizona that were having fun when they were young, riding down the old dirt road shooting bottles and cans off fence posts," he said. "They decided it's a little dangerous shooting bullets [and thought], 'how can we make this more of a sport and safer?' That's how it started."
Lund, 62, is president of the Wild Rice Peacemakers, the club hosting the Warren competition.
Like many riders, Lund sports traditional western clothing. Cowboy mounted shooting clubs have a dress code; in fact, it's part of the competition. For example, Lund said, riders are penalized if they lose their hat before they cross the finish line.
GROWING IN POPULARITY
The sport is gaining popularity nationwide and in Minnesota.
Steve Moe, president of Minnesota Mounted Shooters, the largest mounted shooting club in the state, said the club had about 50 members five years ago. Today, membership is at 175.
Nationwide, more than 12,000 people belong to cowboy mounted shooting clubs.
"In our state we have phenomenal shooters," Moe said. "We have at least five world champions. In order to get to that level you've got to have your horse and you and your guns clicking really well."
There's a wide range of skill levels and ages represented in the sport.
Among the 23 beginners at the Warren competition was Dale Erhardt of western North Dakota. Erhardt, an experienced rodeo competitor, said cowboy mounted shooting is a whole new experience.
"I don't know how to explain it," he said. "It's a rush. Maybe it's the old west theme: cowboys and guns. This is a blast. I really enjoy this."
Like a growing number of horse enthusiasts, Erhardt is hooked by thrill of riding hell bent for leather with guns blazing.