Minnetonka High School tenth grade Calleigh King has always loved horses. A rider since age four, King thought she had found her niche when she began barrel racing at age 14. But King surprised everyone, including herself, when in her first competition of cowboy mounted shooting—barrel racing’s more complex cousin—she won her division. She then won a second divisional competition, which allowed her to compete at the World Championships this past October. “It’s been the most incredible experience,” says King of her recent burst onto the world scene.
Incredible, indeed, given the technicalities involved in cowboy mounted shooting. The event combines speed, accuracy and horsemanship; riders navigate a pattern of barrels while using two pistols to shoot at a series of target balloons, each approximately 20 feet away from the rider’s path. The rider’s score is based primarily on time, with set time penalties given for missed balloons or contact with the barrels.
King first saw cowboy mounted shooting in the fall of 2009 when she watched a regional competition in Albert Lea. Only one year later, King would find herself in competing in—and wining—her own regional competition.
She credits her now-coach Jessie Kuka with much of her success in both barrel racing and cowboy mounted shooting. King first met Kuka during summer 2009. King was in the market for a quarter horse and purchased Sisco, a 15-year-old former breakaway champion, from Kuka’s family. “Meeting Sisco was like love at first sight,” says King. “We even have the same color of hair.”
The bond between rider and horse was instantaneous, and under Kuka’s direction, King’s talent awarded her a win in her first local barrel racing competition only a few months after meeting Sisco. “Many riders have to spend hours working to control the horse with leg strength alone,” says Peggy King, Calleigh’s mom. “But for Calleigh, it all came so naturally.”
The horse ride might have come naturally, but the ride to the top of the leader board didn’t. “I had no idea what was going on,” King says now of her first barrel racing win. “Someone asked me if I was going to go pick up my purse. I said, ‘I didn’t bring one!’”
During the winter of 2009-2010, King continued to work and bond with both Sisco and Kuka. Now, Kuka is “like a sister” to King. Kuka and her family continued to encourage King’s riding, and it was Kuka’s run at cowboy mounted shooting competition at the Albert Lea Regionals in 2009 that first introduced King to the sport. And it was one year after that, in May 2010, that Kuka suggested that King should give cowboy mounted shooting a try.
The first run, which Kuka caught on tape, shows King nimbly navigating a course and hitting every single balloon with ease. “I watched that first run and I knew she could go really far in this sport,” says Kuka.
Three months after that initial run, Kuka and King set off for the Western U.S. Championship in Idaho. This would be King’s first cowboy mounted shooting competition, and Kuka had loaned King an experienced horse, Poco, for the event. King won the Ladies Level I division and, even more impressively, was chosen to compete in the showcase, which pulled the top ten riders from all six ladies levels. While King went into the showcase in tenth place, she ended in third.
“She called to tell me how she had done,” says Peggy King, “and I said, ‘Oh, good job.’ Jessie took the phone from Calleigh and said, ‘I don’t think you understand what an amazing accomplishment this is.’”
Like her response to her immediate success in barrel racing, King and her parents were a little unprepared for her success in cowboy mounted shooting as well. Because she won her division, King received her first belt buckle.
“When you move up to a higher level, you have to do the ‘move up dance,’” says King. “I was so embarrassed and didn’t know what to do, so I tried to do a dance as quickly as I could. They made me do it again,” she says with a laugh.
A month later, during the first week of her sophomore year at Minnetonka High School, King traveled with her parents and the Kukases to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the Eastern U.S. Championship. Again, King competed in Ladies Level I and again, she won. Now, she was eligible to compete at World’s in October in Amarillo, Texas. “I didn’t win,” says King, “but I met the most wonderful people. I had such a great time.”
King can’t wait for the upcoming summer competition season. “I absolutely plan to continue,” she says. “I want to be involved with CMSA [Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association] as long as I can.”
Kuka is glad to hear that, and she knows that King is capable of even more. “Calleigh’s coachable,” says Kuka. “She’s humble and driven, and that’s what makes a champion.”
Don’t miss Calleigh and Poco at the CMSA National Championship in Tunica, Miss., April 12–17.