There are a lot of things about Zane Chunn that mirror millions of other American kids’ experience growing up. More than a few of us asked for a pony for Christmas. Many of us wanted to grow up to be the cowboys we saw on television, able to ride and shoot with precision accuracy even at a thundering gallop.
The difference between Zane Chunn and the rest of us is, he actually did it.
“When I was five, six, seven, I was very into John Wayne and [Gunsmoke’s] Matt Dillon,” he says. “My parents got me replica Colt .45 pistols; same weight, same action, everything. I was brought up around guns and taught gun safety at an early age; we’d go shoot targets and stuff.”
About that time, Zane also asked his parents for a horse for Christmas, so they put him in riding lessons and after about six months bought him his first mount. For those who don’t know, the mount is the horse. Originally, he competed in English-style competitions, but it wouldn’t be long before he found the perfect outlet for marrying his horsemanship and the pistols that had been dragging at his childhood hips.
“I saw mounted shooting on a TV show and my mom did some investigating,” he says. “The lady that did Mom’s hair, her parents did mounted shooting. They’re from the Van Buren/Alma area. I got involved with a local group when I was about nine and jumped into it.”
Mounted shooting is an exciting, timed sport that combines several elements of skill. Mounted competitors race in a specified pattern around and through gates, similar to ski gates, and barrels like those used in barrel racing. At the same time, the rider shoots at balloons mounted along the course. Lowest time wins, with penalties assessed for nicking a stake, hitting a barrel, or missing a shot.
To make things even more challenging, in pistol events the rider must manage two guns, successfully drawing and holstering during the run, shooting five targets with each hand. Other events require use of a rifle or a shotgun.
Competition rules dictate youngsters don’t actually fire the guns – loaded with a black powder blank emitting a long spark to pop the balloon – but instead just point their pistols at the balloons as they make their run. Which left Zane chomping at the bit to get into the adult division as soon as possible.
“I was a horse and gun enthusiast so it all really molded together when I found the sport,” he said. “I won all the majors in the kids’ division, the wrangler class. I liked the timing and accuracy. But when I began actually shooting the balloons, it was definitely very gratifying.”
All competitors are graded according to their ability with one being entry level and six being the most accomplished. By age twelve, the same year he entered the adult division, Zane had reached level five; three years later, he was at level six, a rank usually reserved for professional horse trainers and full-time mounted shooting professionals.
“When I got involved as a kid, I said I want to be the best at this,” he said. “It was my passion. I lived and breathed it every day. I’d go practice and ride. We’d go to all the major championship events, and I would have my mom video all the top competitors back then. Driving to all the events I’d be in the backseat watching over and over, all the top guys, what they were doing and all the little nuances of how they did things.
“There’s a million styles to riding the horse and shooting and you kind of have to figure out what’s best for you, how far you go into the turns, how you change your guns, where you wear your holsters. There’s a wide variety of just that; I wear mine on my hips like an old-school style where a lot of people now in mounted shooting are wearing them on their torso and midsection.”
It didn’t take long for Zane to coordinate all the minute physical details, but turning professional in 2013, he found another element of his game holding him back.
“I had the ability and the skill set, but I was not much of a competitor,” he said. “I went through 2015 and at one point or another I was in the lead at each of the major championships, but I didn’t win one.
That’s when I started studying mental management practices and the mindset you have to have to win. Ultimately, every guy out there in the professional level, we all have a very similar level of ability but at the end of the day it’s between your ears.”
Once that fell into place, the sport was at Zane “Top Gun” Chunn’s mercy. Since winning his first major in 2016, he’s made it look easy. He’s the only person in history to win four of the six majors in a single year, which he’s done twice, and the only person to win the overall at each of the major championships. He’s won the American Quarter Horse Association World Championships seven times and won the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association overall eighteen times, twice that of the person in second place.
Some of his accomplishments read like showing off – in one championship, he blistered the course despite having a stirrup fall off midway through. In another instance, he came off winning a world championship only to fall at the end of a run in the next meet, only to then get up and set a world record in the next run. And oh-did-we-mention his favorite mount, Mocha, is blind in one eye? “Every time I ride him, I’m always amazed he is as good as he is, being blind,” he says. “It’s kind of incomprehensible to think a horse can run full speed like that and trust me to turn. When you’re making a left-hand turn, he’s absolutely blind. Nothing, you know? He’s a freak of nature. He is an unbelievably good horse.”
In addition to rewriting every record book and growing his own lore, Zane’s looked good doing it, introducing a swagger and style that’s modernized the sport with some color and bling. “If my family taught me one thing, it’s how to have fun. Everything that I do is to have fun,” he says. “When I started, it was a lot more like an old Western dress-up type event; we were wearing suspenders and the whole getup like the 1800’s. I always was a little bit more outside the box with that.
“We wear these things called chinks that are like chaps but a little shorter. Probably ten years ago, I said, ‘I should get a pair of gold chinks made.’ Of course, everybody had brown and black and basic kind of deal. I came out with those gold chinks on, you can’t imagine the stir that that caused. So, I’ve always kind of been on the forefront of changing mounted shooting fashion, always been the bright one out there. Now, there’s a lot of bright colors and wild shirts.”
It takes quite a bit to put Zane at a loss for words, but his October induction into the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Hall of Fame, at age twenty-four no less, was one of those things.
“That’s still shocking to me,” he says. “Of all the things that I wanted to achieve in mounted shooting, of course the hall of fame was one of them, but it was never really something that I thought of this early, for sure. When they called me this year and told me, I was in utter shock; I still don’t have the words to conceptualize how big that is.
“I don’t feel like I’ve put the book on the shelf yet. I don’t feel like I’m finished with this story and you tend to associate hall of fame with the end of a career. But it is really cool to go into the hall of fame right at the height of your career. That really is mind blowing.”
Follow Zane’s latest adventures at facebook.com/zane.chunn.
To learn more about mounted shooting, visit Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association at cmsaevents.com.