Photographs by David Mechin, Douglas Smith, Kristen Daulton and J2 Photography
All the shooting sports have unusual athletes. Call them champions, or even stars. Among the stars you find greats that do more than win. They change the sport. Kenda Lenseigne grew beyond star status some time ago, becoming part of the cultural bedrock of mounted shooting. In the course of winning multiple titles on the national and world stage, Lenseigne transformed the guns, the gear, even the saddles used by the current generation of riders/shooters.
“If you had asked me 16 years ago if I thought I could do this full time I wouldn’t have said yes,” says Lenseigne. “Who would have known work would be something you love so much?”
Today Lenseigne is both “making a living” and “living a message” of responsible firearm use that opens doors worldwide. As a trainer, shooter, rider, and ambassador for the shooting sports there is a lot to be said for Kenda Lenseigne.
I caught up with Lenseigne at her New River, Ariz., home, freshly returned from an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) night event in Scottsdale (the Sun Circuit Championship). Like most people, I’d always assumed that mounted shooting was primarily regulated by the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) – the major governing body for cowboy-style events. Not true!
Mounted shooters and SASS “ground shooters” have very different needs, and when Lenseigne started shooting in 1998, the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA) had just branched out from SASS. Since then, the two organizations have followed different roads. The most visible difference being CMSA’s decision to eliminate SASS’ long-standing costume requirements.
“Dropping the costume requirement changed everything,” says Lenseigne. “That one decision opened up the sport to the broader riding world,” says Lenseigne. “Suddenly we had better horses, better riders, and it became a lot less expensive to participate.”
Sponsors like Wrangler took an interest, and people started taking “mounted” seriously. The result was a modern rodeo sport akin to barrel racing – with guns. Horse and rider charge through a rodeo-corral-sized course of fire, circling around and through a proscribed pattern of plastic barrels at maximum speed. At intervals, the rider breaks target balloons using a blank-firing single-action revolver. With as many as 10 balloons in play, the shooter must switch from one pistol to another at full gallop. It happens fast, and at Lenseigne’s level, if you miss one balloon, you lose.
“If you are too far away, the black powder granules burn up before hitting the target, and if you’re too close, once in a while the pattern will have a hole in the middle. The balloon will literally just wave at you. It’s happened to me several times.” Lenseigne continued, “You have to trust yourself to hold off a little bit. If you relate it to bird hunting, you want to wait for the bird to be at an optimum distance. Shooting it too soon leads to a bad result, and so does waiting too long.”
Flying through an agility course atop a galloping charger isn’t “normal” horseback
riding. Barrel racers aren’t quite as crazy as, say, rodeo bull riders, but the pictures with this article show a little bit of what Lenseigne’s horses can do. I mentioned to Lenseigne that my aunt was a barrel racer, and she shot back with “Then, she’s crazy like us!”
This year Lenseigne made her fourth trip to France to serve as an ambassador/trainer for the growing community of Western shooting enthusiasts there. European mounted fans are overcoming some gun-control requirements – using cap-and-ball revolvers if they have to – in order to shoot from horseback.
The following year, Lenseigne was asked to teach a clinic – and France had eased its gun restrictions so she was able to use a revolver. “People started showing up with all manner of crazy stuff. They were just so happy to be there, it was infectious,” she says. “Last year, even more showed up, some with modified .357 revolvers.”
Some European riders are bringing their dream to learn all there is to know about the mounted shooting and cowboy lifestyle all the way to the United States just to compete.
New Sport New Gear
Back in the late 1990s, Lenseigne and her fellow riders had no gear that really worked for mounted-action shooting. Some things could be adapted (barrel racing saddles, for example), but most of the “gun stuff” was just wrong. Imagine trying to re-holster a SAA (single-action Army Colt revolver or Peacemaker) one-handed while using a period-correct “slim jim” holster (a holster with a very narrow girth) at full gallop. It’s not quite like threading a needle, but you get the idea.
“We had people walking around with water bottles stuffed in their holsters to get them to stay open,” says Lenseigne. “I was one of them!”
The problem became an opportunity when Lenseigne met Safariland’s Scott Carnahan at the NRA’s Bianchi Cup in Colombia, Mo. The holster innovations that practical shooters like Carnahan take for granted – low-cut fronts for faster draws, laminated holster materials, adjustable draw tension – all that was unknown to the mounted community.
Carnahan connected Lenseigne with his design staff, and their Bianchi Cowboy line has offered Kenda Lenseigne signature holsters ever since. Lenseigne’s line takes advantage of the technology that Safariland is known for, but holds the standard of a traditional look and feel. “It’s like an old model car with a new engine.”
“When you look at the products I’ve been involved in developing, people essentially are benefiting from my decade of learning the hard way,” laughed Lenseigne. As she explained, it’s difficult to shoot a standard Peacemaker well right out of the box due to the stiff hammer action. Competitive shooters immediately lighten the hammers. “When I first started in the sport, I had heard about the legendary Bob Munden who was the go-to gunsmith, so I sent him my guns. When I got them back, $300 per gun later, I had hair triggers – which is absolutely not what you want for mounted shooting.” Once Lenseigne found the right gunsmiths, her mounted guns began to evolve. “The original hammer spur on the old Peacemaker tends to open your grip when you’re shooting one-handed,” Lenseigne explained. “So, we took that hammer spur and made it lower and wider for quicker access.” Today, Uberti firearms offers the Kenda Lenseigne signature line as a package “racegun” for mounted shooting. They sell well to mounted shooters, and to “ground shooters” who compete in SASS events.
The Mountain Comes to Mohammed
Certain brands have become household words among horse people in the US. One of the largest is Circle Y Saddles.
“In January of ‘09, Circle Y contacted me to design a saddle for them, saying ‘We want to be the first in the industry that builds a saddle specifically for your sport.’” Lenseigne was shocked. What an honor! “This is the saddle brand that practically everybody grew up riding, or at least wanting to ride. Basically, if you own a horse, you know Circle Y.”
Lenseigne had ridden many different disciplines over the years, so she had a lot to say.
“They sent out their designer to visit with me, and we sat down with a yellow pad. We sketched out what I thought would be a good design for the sport: a forward-tilted horn to allow clearance for your gun leather, free-moving stirrups, and a deep seat to hold you in.” A contract to ride for Circle Y developed, and things got very serious. “They hand-delivered the prototype to one of the CMSA majors in Arizona. They put it on my horse, did a photo shoot, and then gave me the option to ride it in the upcoming event, or ride my regular saddle.” As any sponsored competitor knows, running brand-new gear at an important match invites disaster. If it works, you’re a hero. If it fails you damage yourself and the brand. It’s a high-stakes “hero or zero” gamble.
“I warmed up my horse in the saddle for about 45 minutes, liked it, and decided the time was right to believe in my design and go for it.” Lenseigne set the world record on her first pass, and her saddle design went “hero” instantly. “The design was a hit from day one; we’ve only made some minor changes since then – different grades of leather, etc.,” she says. Not every project has worked out so well, but as she’ll tell you “you can’t excel unless you fail a time or two and learn from your experiences.”
Lenseigne’s life involves many pieces. She describes herself as “horse-heavy at the moment” with six of her own quarter horses in varying stages of training, plus several more that she’s training for customers. As you might imagine, training a horse to deal with a gunshot fired near its head isn’t easy, and would-be competitive riders are more than willing to pay her for her help. Lenseigne’s involved with every piece of the puzzle, firing .22 blanks from horseback on her home range, and taking horses to the Ben Avery Shooting Complex to shoot the louder .45s.
“For me the most important thing is building the horse’s confidence to accept the noise of gunfire. People send their horses to me for that.”
Once she gets the horse settled in, she insists on spending time training the rider. “I can train the horse and he’ll be ready to go, but if the rider doesn’t know what buttons to push, that won’t work for either of us.”
Lenseigne explained that even a moderately experienced rider can accidentally send the horse mixed signals – especially with all the distractions created by adding guns and rapid balance shifts to the equation.
“Had I not been an experienced rider, I certainly would have hit the ground more times than I can count,” says Lenseigne. In the Internet age, Lenseigne’s an irony in motion. She’s competing, training, designing, traveling the world, and doing media appearances – all because of her skill with a horse and a gun. ASJ
David Mechin is a French photographer whose ability to capture Kenda Lenseigne in these images portrays his passion for his field and depiction of beauty, power and dynamism. See more of his work at davidmechin.com.