It doesn't bother Dawn Santo to be described as an adrenaline junkie. The Park City, Utah, resident is a former alpine ski racer who traded in her ski poles and bindings for a western saddle and a pair of spurs. Yet her goals on horseback are the same: know your course, go fast and be accurate.
What’s her equestrian source of adrenaline? Currently Dawn is one of the leading female participants in the sport known as mounted shooting, an event sanctioned by the Single Action Shooting Society. When Dawn and her 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Chase, are competing, the two are a team primed for action. “I’m just hungry for it,” Dawn says of the speed and precision involved.
It’s apparent that Chase loves his job, too, as he’s held at the fence line, poised with taut muscles, awaiting the start signal. Then he’s sent forward, bounding into full speed in a few strides, as Dawn sends him up the line of targets: ten balloons mounted on stakes. Wielding a pair of Old West-styled .45 caliber revolvers filled with black powder blanks, Dawn attempts to outshoot her rival as Chase pins his ears to outrace his equine nemesis in a sort of quick-draw match race. The winner is the entrant who rides the fastest and shoots the straightest.
Though Dawn seems to fit the part of a modern day Annie Oakley, she actually began riding only a few years ago. That’s despite the fact that her sister is a Grand Prix dressage rider and her husband competes in cutting.
“Really, I used to be afraid of horses. Then, when I became pregnant, I realized I needed to do something to stay active besides skiing. So one of my girlfriends, who owns a ranch, had me come out and go riding. I was hooked.”
Next came a horse. She was drawn to Chase, a rangy dark bay Thoroughbred, who seemed to exude a quiet intelligence and a ton of heart. She spent months riding him in the Utah mountains, getting him “really broke and conditioned.”
A short stint in barrel racing, where the horse struggled with the tight turns and abruptly tumbled, ended up with Dawn spending time in the hospital. She realized standard gymkhana games didn’t fit his big movement, yet she still yearned for the adrenaline rush of timed events. It was pure serendipity that she attended a mounted shooting match. She’d found her niche.
True to her gung-ho nature, Dawn approached mounted shooting with a learn-by-doing method. At first, Chase was afraid of the balloons when they popped. Then, her timing was off, because she was leaning toward the balloons, almost trying too hard. But after a few sessions, Chase learned his job, Dawn understood how to plan strategy, and the two became a team.
“He’s just so dog quiet,” she says fondly of her horse. “But it’s like there’s this on-and-off switch. It’s just amazing that he’s the same animal that will just tear up the course. Once I give him the signal to go, I’d better hang on, because his job is to get to the other end of that arena as fast as he can.”
But how can she concentrate on shooting when her ex-racehorse is perhaps reliving a homestretch run at breakneck speed?
“Trust,” she says with a smile.
Editor’s note: For more information on Mounted Shooting please visit their Website.