A frequent question I receive in my work is in which country sports I participate. Some people are surprised to learn that I have not focused on any of the disciplines myself, learning about them by observing, reading, and asking lots of questions of experts.
I have not been riding since I was 8 years old. Like any self-respecting little girl, however, I was obsessed with horses but tragically lived in the suburbs of New Jersey with no farms nearby. I grew up in an outdoorsy and adventurous family though, spending summers camping across the U.S. and parts of Canada or visiting relatives in Austria and Germany and winters skiing. Hiking, biking, swimming, sailing, row boating, and the occasional alpine slide ride were standard fare on trips, and we even tried three-wheeling and another time parasailing over Lake George.
My big chance to ride came on one of our family vacations when the Martha’s Vineyard KOA Campground sign was in sight after a long drive. A nearby hand-spray-painted piece of plywood beckoned, “Horseback Riding Lessons.” I knew it would be an expensive undertaking, so the balancing act of asking nicely without being too much of a pest commenced. My brother wanted to ride too: our parents caved!
Although the Kodachrome 64 slides my dad took do not show it, it is one of the most exhilarating memories of my childhood. I now laugh at the not-so-subtle reminder of the haircut I gave myself the winter before and the annoying wisp of hair that was growing out. A la 1980, we did not wear helmets during our lesson. My brother was almost bucked off. I tried not to laugh while astride my strawberry roan, whose name I surprisingly cannot remember, feeling like I was sitting on top of the world. She was a stubborn cuss who liked to eat grass. The sage advice that echoes in memory from my riding instructor is, “Feel the rhythm of the horse.”
My family is competitive, so every activity required 100% effort and engagement. It was usually fun but sometimes frustrating being the youngest by four years always trying to keep up. When we were not outside, we expended pent up energy playing ping pong in the enclosed porch. Then my brother got a pellet rifle from our uncle, and we had a new indoor pastime—target shooting in the basement. We quickly fashioned ourselves crack shots, and I distinctly remember attracting a small crowd of teenagers at a volksfest watergun game booth once.
As an adult, I have enjoyed going to the gun range but never aimed at a moving target until a recent staff outing to take a beginner lesson with National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA) certified shooting instructor Isobel Ziluca at her Crockett’s Shooting Club in Upperville, VA. Sporting clay clubs and tournaments are set up with several machines that throw different size clay targets to simulate shooting waterfowl, upland birds, and rabbit. The sport was brought to the United States from England in the 1980s, and the NSCA was founded in 1989.
Isobel asked about my experience and offered the first bit of advice, “You’ll need to keep both eyes open.” She let me use her Beretta .20 gauge, a great beginner gun. She explained the benefit of reduced recoil of the semi-automatic action: no shoulder or chin bruises in learning to hold the stock against the shoulder and firmly rest the cheek on it.
Isobel’s range is set up in a semi-circle with the shooter at a stationary location. Most machines throw targets in the air and one on the ground at a set arc and direction across the field, away, or toward the shooter. No two trajectories are exactly the same, being affected by wind and weather. We started with thrower 1A which sends a clay away from the shooter in an arc from the left. I was not scared, but nervous adrenaline was pumping a bit too strongly. I hoped she did not notice that was I was shaking.
There is a lot to remember: point your body, one foot behind the other leaning forward, in the direction where you will want to pull the trigger but aim where the clay will leave the machine. Maintain soft focus, find and trace the path of the clay, sharpen focus, aim at the “belly of the bird,” and pull the trigger when your instincts say, “Go!” I had a hard time focusing past the gun barrel at the clay at first and following my gut. It was an entirely new concept instead of aligning the post and notch with a target.
Isobel was patient and encouraging as I missed several clays. Then it all came together for the first time. I leaned into it and pulverized a target. It was an accident, but it still felt good. My colleague captured the moment. After that, I found myself wanting to analyze and recreate the moment over and over. It is highly addictive.
I have already had a second lesson (wearing a dress no less) and I got moldable earplugs as a gift for Mother’s Day. I think it is safe to say that I see more clay target lessons in my future.
Claudia Pfeiffer is the Deputy Director and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org