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Island Long Riders brave the heat for horseback shooting competition

Jim Passarella Jr., riding Logan, aims his rifle

Jim Passarella Jr., riding Logan, aims his rifle during the single rifle run at the mounted horse shooting competition at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. (July 20, 2013) (Credit: Andrew Wroblewski)

Not even the heat can stop the cowboys and cowgirls of Island Long Riders.

Though the heat index reached 97 degrees Saturday, the riders still turned up at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration in full cowboy gear to show off their skills in a horse mounted shooting competition.

“We knew we had a lot of people coming out . . . so we didn’t want to cancel the event,” said club president Joe Mugnai, of Farmingdale.

Mugnai founded the Island Long Riders, Long Island’s only cowboy mounted shooting club, in 2009 and it is now an affiliate club of the Cowboy Sports Association, a national organization that promotes mounted shooting.

On Saturday, Mugnai and eight of his riders braved the heat and put on a show for those wandering around the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. The crowd started small, but as the sound of gunshots began ringing through the air, curious spectators began trickling in.

James Alonzo, 53, and his wife Donna, 51, of Islandia, were the first two spectators on the scene.

“I could watch this all day,” James Alonzo said. “We just recently started riding and met one of the Island Long Riders at the stables where we are taking lessons and she told us about today’s event. I’ve always been a fan of guns and I own a few rifles myself, but once I start riding for real I want to apply for a pistol license so that I can give mounted shooting a try.”

Throughout the day, riders took turns running through the different courses that Mugnai laid out for them with red and white balloons fastened to cones as targets.

A rider started a heat by maneuvering through an obstacle course and shooting at five white balloons  with a replica Colt 1873 revolver. Then, the rider holstered, switched to a second revolver and raced back toward the starting point, picking off a set of red balloons.

Typically, when the riders compete, their times apply to a national ranking, but on Saturday Mugnai made the decision to tone it down to just a “demonstration.” This slowed the pace of the event, but assured that the riders and the horses would not overheat.

At the gun table, Jim Passarella, 53, of Ronkonkoma, was tasked with loading and unloading the revolvers and manning the clock that recorded how fast the riders completed a course. But his unofficial task was to answer the many questions posed to him by passersby about the guns and ammunition being used in the competition.

“Each of our riders has a New York State pistol license,” Passarella said. “We don’t use live ammunition because it’s a safety hazard so we use blank bullets filled with black gunpowder. Instead of puncturing the balloons like a bullet would, the black powder burns them, causing them to pop.”

With a heat advisory in effect for Nassau County, the guns were just one of the concerns for those in attendance. The cowboy gear the riders wore proved to be another obstacle in keeping cool -- but it’s also a necessity. Riders must be in full costume -- chaps, suspenders, boots and, of course, cowboy hats -- in order to compete.

“Being out there in the heat with the gear on can be tough,” Mugnai said. “But the crowd loves it and the horses seem to as well, so it’s definitely worth it.”

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