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Sultan native among world's best shots on horseback

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By Debra Smith, Herald Writer
  • Kenda Lenseigne rides her quarter horse, Justin, in September. Lenseigne originally didn't hold out much hope for Justin, but the team has since becom...

    Brian Anthony

    Kenda Lenseigne rides her quarter horse, Justin, in September. Lenseigne originally didn't hold out much hope for Justin, but the team has since become champions.

  • Kenda Lenseigne at Murfreesburo, Tenn., in the summer of 2009. She competes in cowboy mounted shooting, in which participants ride a timed course that...

    Brian Anthony

    Kenda Lenseigne at Murfreesburo, Tenn., in the summer of 2009. She competes in cowboy mounted shooting, in which participants ride a timed course that includes target shooting.

  • Kenda Lenseigne at Hunter Creek Ranch in Ellensburg in September.

    Brian Anthony

    Kenda Lenseigne at Hunter Creek Ranch in Ellensburg in September.

One perfect run.
That's all that separates Kenda Lenseigne from something extraordinary: a world championship.
She waits to enter the arena and can almost hear the tension crackling in the air.
The crowd holds its breath, waiting for her.
Learn more about cowboy mounted shooting in our animated graphic.
It's October and this cowgirl from Sultan is one run away from beating last year's reigning world champion in mounted shooting.
After five days of competition in Amarillo, Texas, she holds a one-tenth-a-second lead — so small a lead she imagines it as barely the length of an untrimmed whisker on her horse's nose.
If she wins, it will be the first time a woman has taken the world champion title.
She pushes plugs into her ears, squeezes her eyes shut and mentally rehearses the pattern. In her mind, she sees her horse, Justin, streak off the line. She imagines her hand reaching for her pistols, imagines the shots hitting their marks, imagines a perfect run.
The ritual smooths away her tension.
The riders in front of her run their stages, one after another.
Finally, her time arrives. The announcer tells the crowd Kenda Lenseigne is on deck.
Justin steps out into the lights and on his back rides a tall, lean cowgirl with two long yellow braids and leather chinks over her blue jeans.
She's ready and she knows her horse is ready, too. She can feel his heart, fast and strong, thumping under the saddle.
Ready for the run of their lives.
Two suitcases and Texas
Kenda had always heard people talk about the big Texas sky.
She didn't understand until she was dropped off alone on a road at night, holding two suitcases.
It was 1992 and she was 18, just graduated from Sultan High School. For the first time in her life, she was utterly alone.
Kenda Lenseigne, the world-record cowgirl, didn't yet exist. There was only Kenda Klein, a horse-crazy girl from Sultan.
Most 18-year-olds who pack their bags and strike off for some far-flung place are running from something. Not Kenda. Her independence, and her need to see the world, drove her to it.
She spent most of her childhood on the back of a horse.
Her parents, Ken and Karen Klein, own 10 acres near town and they had her in the saddle as soon as she could sit up.
Her mom remembers the moment she knew her daughter belonged on a horse. Kenda was 2. Someone put her on a pony and let go. Kenda fell off and started screaming. Her mother tried to comfort her, but Kenda wouldn't stop crying — until someone plopped her back on the pony.
Before long Kenda was entering riding competitions, both Western and English styles: barrel racing, pole-bending, hunter jumping, Western pleasure. Even then, she rode like a ballerina on a horse, her mother says.
Kenda could have gone to college. She was a good student, smart and diligent. What she wanted more than anything was to make a living with horses.
That's how she ended up two months after high school on a lonely road in Texas.
She was there to start a new life working on a cattle ranch, earning $120 a week exercising horses and mucking out stalls, what people in the business call a barn slave.
A friend dropped her off not far from the ranch. Kenda sniffled a little, wondering what exactly she had done. She had lived in Sultan her entire life. Her comfortable bedroom was far behind her and so was her town, her family, her childhood. About a million stars spread out to infinity above her, and the bigness of it all reminded her she was alone.
Right then she could have turned back, gone home.
Instead, she picked up her suitcases and clomped down the road in her cowboy boots toward a future she couldn't imagine.
Shooting from a horse has been around since the invention of guns.
This particular cowboy skill didn't become a sport until 15 years ago. That's when a few modern-day cowpokes found a safe way to combine horseback riding and shooting.
It would come to be known as Cowboy Mounted Shooting and it looks like this: Competitors riding a horse on a timed course lined with 10 balloons, shooting the targets as they go. Two pistols, five shots each.
Jim Rodgers, a dedicated rider from Arizona and the father of the sport, thought up the idea of shooting blanks at balloons. That bit of inspiration made it safe for a cowboy to ride at top speed in an arena around a series of barrels, while rapidly unloading two .45 caliber single-action revolvers.
Rodgers and his friends started putting on competitions and demonstrations at rodeos. Pretty soon there were clips on cable television shows and feature stories in Western Horseman magazine.
The sport caught on quickly, says Brady Carr, one of those riders who discovered the sport in its early years.
He's now the executive vice president of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, a national organization based in Tennessee that oversees and administers the sport. “Raw Horsepower, Hard Ridin', Straight Shootin'” the association's Web site boasts. In 2003, the association had 2,000 members. Today, membership is close to 10,000.
The sport is a natural companion to other popular Western events like roping and barrel racing, with a ready-made base of cowboys with the skills to give it a try.
“We laughingly call it ‘cowboy cocaine,'” Carr says. “It's an adrenaline rush.”
In the tradition-laden equestrian world, there are signs the sport is becoming far more than a rodeo exhibition. Big-name companies like Wrangler have stepped up as sponsors, and regional mounted shooting clubs are springing up across the United States, including the Western Washington Mounted Shooters, based in Granite Falls.
Perhaps most telling of all is the influx of smart, talented riders taking over the top ranks of the sport.
A select club of riders that a young cowgirl from Sultan was about to join.
By 1998, Kenda Klein was working on another ranch in Southern California as a loper.
Then 23, she spent her days warming up horses for the trainers on the ranch and doing other barn slave work.
Her life got set on a different course, one she never expected, after one fateful trip to watch a rodeo.
She remembers the moment clearly.
She was sitting in the stands, and during a break between events, a cowboy she knows stepped into the ring and addressed the audience. He wanted to tell them about a new sport so fun and easy anybody could do it. It's called cowboy mounted shooting and all that's involved is racing a horse around some barrels and shooting some targets. Maybe somebody in the crowd would like to give mounted shooting a try, he said.
Then, that cowboy was pointing directly at her, motioning for Kenda Klein to come down out of the stands.
Oh, no, don't make me do this right now, she thought.
She got up and worked her way down to the arena anyway. After a quick tutorial on how to fire the pistol, she strapped on the gun belt and climbed onto somebody else's horse. Even though she had never fired a pistol in her life, even though hundreds of eyes were on her, she was off around the barrels, firing off blanks at the targets like Annie Oakley.
She hit only two of 10 balloons. But she was hooked, so hooked she found herself signing up for her first mounted-shooting competition the following week.
It took only a few competitions for her to qualify for the world championships that year. Although she took to the sport easily, real success wouldn't come without a terrible sacrifice.
The bond between a rider and her horse — it's hard to put into words.
By 2002, Kenda Klein had developed a close bond with Ted, a horse she spent hours training for mounted-shooting competitions.
That's why it was particularly painful when she lost Ted unexpectedly on a trail ride that year.
She still doesn't know exactly what happened. Kenda and a friend spent longer on the trail than expected. They rode into the stable yard in the dark. In the moonlight, Kenda caught sight of something horrific: a puncture wound under Ted's belly. Five minutes later, the horse was dead.
By that time, Kenda Klein had established herself in the sport. She had become well-regarded enough as a trainer that any stalls she mucked out were her own at her Ellensburg ranch. She was just a year away from marrying her sweetheart, Tony Lenseigne, a firefighter from Seattle. She knew she needed a good horse, but she wasn't sure where she was going to find one. Then her mother stepped in.
Karen Klein offered her daughter a horse named Lieutenent Justin, a brown quarter horse with an odd name. He wasn't flashy enough for the drill team Karen Klein performed in. He was a perfectly fine horse, maybe a bit small at 15 hands. Kenda gave the quarter horse a try.
That season was a disaster.
Lieutenent Justin hated gunfire. He'd run pell-mell when he heard a pistol unload.
At first, this didn't worry Kenda Klein too much. Lots of horses are trouble at the beginning and they grow out of it. After six months of solid training, Justin didn't get any better.
At the world championships in 2004, the horse ran so wild two of the runs were disqualified. In complete frustration, Kenda Klein gave Justin the winter off. When springtime arrived, she didn't have high hopes for the horse.
She started calling him her 50 percent horse. He'd run three stages perfectly and then follow it with three out-of-control, sloppy runs. She still didn't want to give up on him. Under all that stubbornness, she could see the champion, the natural ability.
Sometime over those long months, something clicked into place. Justin figured out what he was supposed to do.
Suddenly, he wasn't running wild: He was listening, responding, working with Kenda. He was no longer afraid of gunfire.
In the fall of 2005, Kenda and Justin returned to the world championships.
This time, she broke a world record.
As Kenda puts it, Justin became invested heart and soul in mounted shooting, all or nothing.
In the next few years, Kenda Lenseigne and Justin heated up the mounted-shooting scene.
Justin's compact, athletic body turned out to be what equestrian types call “catty” — his catlike reflexes perfect for the wicked-fast twists and tight turns of a mounted-shooting course.
She discovered the champion in Justin. He's what Kenda calls an alpha horse, a fierce competitor whose chest puffs out after a win.
It was more than just a good horse, and a good relationship with that horse, that catapulted Lenseigne to the top of the sport. She turned out to be smoking fast with a pistol. In one world-record-setting performance in 2005, she popped off 10 perfect shots from two revolvers in 11 seconds — while on the back of a speeding Justin. Last year she shaved nearly another second off that world record.
That kind of marksmanship and ability didn't come from talent alone. She spent years training diligently, and her work paid dividends.
Big-name businesses like Professional's Choice — the Nike of equestrian companies — began approaching Lenseigne and offering endorsements. One decades-old saddle company developed a mounted-shooting saddle line named after her.
By 2008 she had participated in seven world championships and broken six world records. One thing continued to elude Kenda and her horse: the overall world championship.
Then she picked up a book by an Olympic rifle shooter called “With Winning in Mind.” What she gleaned from that book was a totally new way to think about training, a systematic approach to setting goals and reaching them.
The world championship was scheduled for October in Texas.
Riders would compete in six stages, one each day. The rider with the fastest cumulative time would take the win.
This time she wanted the win.
An hour before her run, Kenda Lenseigne finds a deserted arena far away from the crowd and warms up Justin. She uses the time to focus inward, to see every turn and movement in a mental slow-motion.
The first five days of world championship competition were excruciating.
Not the runs themselves, which she and Justin blasted through like a well-oiled machine. But the long, drawn-out waits.
It was day six. She was exhausted and on edge.
After five runs, her cumulative time was only one tenth a second ahead of world champion Charlie Little from Minnesota. The tension was immense. Women kept coming up to tell her she needed to win it for the girls.
Finally, it's time to get in line for the final run.
She'll run before Little, her place in line drawn by random.
As she waits for her moment in the arena, she can feel the tension melt away, replaced by a calm energy, a quickening of her heart she feels mirrored by her horse.
The announcer calls her name. She can feel Justin pull in a deep breath, feel the horse's lungs expanding under the saddle, feel his raw power. She brings Justin into the arena and lopes a gentle circle and she sees the range master give the green light.
Her two Cimarron single action .45 caliber pistols are strapped at her side, ready.
Justin can feel the subtle shift of her body, the slight touch of a rein on his neck.
She turns the horse loose and something in her mind clicks over to autopilot. Her hand reaches for her holster as Justin races down the arena. She whips out the pistol with her right hand, her shooting hand, and pulls off the first shot, turns and heads back plunking off four more, slides her pistol back in its holster. Then another turn and Justin is streaking back to the other side of the arena toward the final turn.
Justin rounds the last barrel, and, just for a moment, she feels the horse start shouldering into it. Disaster looms for a split second. Knocking over that barrel is a five-second penalty — sudden death to any hope of winning.
She gives his side a gentle push with her leg. He steers back, she fires off five perfect shots and Justin pounds across the line, an electric eye snapping the result. Kenda knows she's nailed every target.
Now it's up to Little, who has to best her time and hit every mark.
She waits and watches. Finally, Little brings his horse into the ring and snakes through the course, pistols firing. As he takes his horse across the line, one white balloon remains unpopped. Even if he'd hit them all, her time is still faster.
She's won.
Kenda, the cowgirl from Sultan, can only stare at the lights and take in the energy of the arena.
And she thinks: This is my day, this is my year, I've earned this.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197,

Watch her shoot

See Kenda Lenseigne in action in this YouTube clip.

Story tags » Sultan

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