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There are very few timed events in the equine sports world where men and women share the stage. In the professional rodeo world, women compete in barrel racing and men in all the other events. Unlike professional rodeo, Cowboy Mounted Shooting is a mixed gender sport which has clear divisions for men and women—with one exception. At the end of any of these highly competitive contests, one winner emerges as the overall champion, regardless of gender. When it boils down to the world championship, the fastest, the best, and the most consistent competitor rises to the top, male or female. Meet Kenda Lenseigne, World Champion Mounted Shooter, an equestrian athlete at the top of her game, and one of the very few female competitors who demands the opposite sex bring their big-boy game whenever she enters the arena.
Kenda has been a competitive rider for as far back as she can remember. “I actually started riding before I could walk. My mom would put me up behind the saddle horn with her. Then I got my first pony at age two. In fact, my mom would tell stories about how when I’d fall off at age two, I’d cry—until they put me back on.”
After high school, Kenda worked at cutting horse ranches in Texas and southern California. Then, in the mid-1990s, a brand new arena sport began gaining ground in Arizona and California. A group of men wanted to take the Old West firearms sport of cowboy action shooting and put it on horseback. The result was the formation of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association (CMSA).
To best describe the sport, riders on horseback are put on the clock, and must maneuver through a set pattern while shooting ten balloon targets. Think of barrel racing, with the added element of target shooting and a pattern that changes for each competition. There are levels of competitors from beginners (level 1), up to experts (level 6). Riders negotiate a variety of official courses created by the CMSA. Competitors use two westerns style, single action revolvers that shoot blank ammunition whose burning black powder embers burst the balloon targets. The rider and horse one with the fastest time and the least amount of missed targets and no knocked over barrels wins.
“I was living in southern California and was introduced to Cowboy Mounted Shooting—I became hooked,” Kenda remembers. “I think what appealed to me the most is that it was a timed event. After spending many years in judged events, it was refreshing to just go out—me and the clock, my penalties and my horse.”
Needless to say, this fast growing sport demands an agile and quick horse, and in 2004, Kenda set her sights on her perfect equine partner.
“I bought Justin when he was just a surly six-year-old with an attitude,” Kenda recalls. “Justin is a champion. He was born that way. He’s the first horse at the feeder and he’s a competitor at heart. So channeling that in the right direction was a challenge.”
In the first year of training, the two were butting heads. “He did not like gunfire at all and he just had his own opinions,” Kenda laments. “I used to call him my 50/50 horse, which means I’d have three good runs and three terrible runs. It took about a year and a half before all of a sudden he broke his first world record. Things just started climbing up from there.”
Since the CMSA’s inception, the idea of a woman taking the overall title was never seriously considered. This is simply because for the fifteen or so years leading up to the 2009 World Championships, it had never been done.
“I wanted to raise the bar,” remembers Kenda. “I wanted to be the girl that could compete with and have a chance at beating those old boys.”
And beat those old boys she did. At the 2009 CMSA World Championships in Amarillo, Texas, Kenda became the first woman in the sport to win the overall World Championship title, beating out all, including the men.
“Leading up to that weekend, Justin and I had been on a roll,” says Kenda. “I just felt good. I felt like when we walked into the arena, we were just going to win—we’re ready, we’ve put the time in, we put the work in and we’re ready to go. “
Kenda not only broke all records by becoming the world champ (she still remains the only woman in the sport to claim that title), but she also snagged the CMSA Overall National Championships, becoming the first women ever to take that title just a few months after winning the worlds.
Kenda Lenseigne remains on top of the mounted shooting world to this day. Lenseigne is a threat to competitors every time she competes—and an inspiration.
In 2014, Kenda won the Overall Cowgirl and in 2015, the Ladies Reserve title at the worlds. Not surprisingly, she has become a prominent role model for women entering the sport.
“Blazing the trail for cowgirls everywhere by winning these overall titles has opened the door for women and young girls who say ‘I can do this too.’ There’s a lot of young girls who have emailed me or come up to me to ask questions. It’s so inspiring to be able to be that person that they can look up to.”
Throughout her mounted shooting career, Kenda has had her hand in the development of products integral to the sport. In association with Circle Y Saddles, she designed saddles created specifically for mounted shooting, and competition holsters with Bianchi Leather. She has also designed and developed competition revolvers and rifles for the prestigious firearms manufacturer, A. Uberti; weighing in on grip, trigger and hammer design, as well as an innovative “short stroke” that reduces hammer pull, critical to intense competition. Kenda even designed competition revolvers that are acceptable to the stringent gun laws in several foreign countries (including France and Germany) who have embraced the sport—and a passion for the American West.
“In Cowboy Mounted Shooting, I think it’s about 90% horsemanship and 10% gun handling,” Kenda explains. “If you aren’t connected with your horse, you’re not going to have as good of a chance to stay in that top ten or twenty riders.”
“What I look for in a mounted shooting horse is first, conformation, to make sure they’re built correctly. And when I say correctly that just means that they have all four feet on the ground and they can move right because we have a lot of different turns in our patterns. If you don’t have a race car under you, chances of you staying efficient are less. I also look for a good mind. We do expect them to handle gunfire and adrenaline and all the other aspects of our sport at high rates of speed. Another thing is heart. It’s these three elements that build a champion.”
“Justin had all three, although looking at his conformation when I first saw him I didn’t think that he’d be all that he was, but I think that’s where heart takes over. I’m not perfect, I’m not built perfectly, however, I have the heart and desire to do this sport and I think with training and the desire to do it, great things can happen.”
And they did. Until a fateful spring day when Justin broke his leg. “Justin and I had been together for ten years, starting our 11th season, and in May 2015 he shattered his back leg in a practice. I felt like my life ended that day. Everything went through my mind from I lost a friend, I lost a partner, to now what am I gonna do—I’m the current world champion? Of course, titles at that point mean nothing. Right now it’s just a matter of saving your friend.”
Luckily, this horse’s old west style shooter lived in the new west, with access to the best 21st century veterinary care. “We opted to do surgery to repair his leg and we saved his life. He’ll never run again, but he’s happy and fat and living out the retirement that he has definitely earned.”
“And then the selfish part of my career says, ‘what are you going to do now?’ Do you have another horse? Can you step right back into that winner’s circle? I always have a couple of back ups that I work with, one in particular that I bought as a yearling. She’s six now, but I had been hauling her around, having her step in from time to time for Justin when I needed her to. She stepped right in—she said ‘put me in coach’ and away we went! We won the ladies reserve CMSA world championship in 2015. She didn’t skip a beat. She gave me that buckle—it’s like Justin passed the torch over to her.”
Kenda’s also passing the torch—if not the championship buckles—to the legions of newbies anxious to get in on the action.
“I think the sport of Cowboy Mounted Shooting will continue to grow. It’s only getting bigger and better every year with worldwide reach. We’ve got great sponsors on board—people are signing up every day. When you look at a big shoot and over fifty-percent of the entries are level one riders, that says a lot about our growth.”
“I always tell people when they want to get into the sport…find a trainer or find someone who can get you plugged in. Anyone can participate in this sport and I mean anyone. If you have a heart and blood pumping through your veins and you want to shoot a gun and want to ride a horse, you can.”
Kenda has been fortunate in making mounted shooting her career, an accomplishment she appreciates every day, “I train horses, I teach clinics, I give lessons, in fact I’m pretty busy all year round,” she contemplates. “I think, gosh, I don’t have to sit in an office—I get to ride horses and shoot guns every day for a living—this is pretty cool. I am really blessed to have this life.”