November 08, 2001 11:00 pm
Cheryl Kleng Hagen and her horse Playboy. Hagen graduated from La Grande High in 1973. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
Cheryl Kleng Hagen and her horse Playboy. Hagen graduated from La Grande High in 1973. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Cheryl Kleng Hagen is sitting tall in the saddle today.

The former La Grande resident is bound for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Hagen qualified last weekend to compete in the sport of cowboy mounted action shooting at the Olympics. Cowboy mounted action shooting will be an exhibition sport at the Winter Olympics. No medals will be awarded.

Hagen, a McMinnville resident and a 1973 graduate of La Grande High School, was among 20 who qualified for the womens competition. She had the second-best overall time. The competition was open to people throughout the world.

There was a lot of pressure but I do better under pressure. The tougher the competition the better I like it, Hagen said.

Hagen will compete at the Winter Olympics Feb. 9-10. Competition will be in an indoor arena. The Olympics start Feb. 8 and conclude Feb. 24.

In cowboy mounted action shooting competitors ride a horse over a course that has obstacles and 10 balloons 21 feet apart. Riders shoot at each with a .45-caliber single- action pistol.

It is like barrel racing with guns, said Scott Bradley, a cowboy action shooter from Newberg.

Bradley was among a group of shooters from the Willamette Valley who Hagen traveled with to Salt Lake City last weekend. The group stopped in La Grande on Monday night while returning home.

At each competition the rider with the fastest time wins. Competitors are penalized five seconds for each balloon they miss.

Hagen made eight runs during the Olympic trials Saturday and Sunday. She missed only three targets all because a pistol malfunctioned.

Entrants dont fire bullets but rather crushed walnuts in black powder. Their pistols are single- action six-shooters. The hammer must be pulled back before each shot. Hagen does this while keeping just one hand on her gun.

Hagen has competed in cowboy mounted action shooting for three years. She has won many state, regional and national titles. In 2000 she placed third overall in the womens division of the Single Action Shooting Societys world championships.

In the team competition of the Single Action Shooting Societys 2000 world championships, Hagen and a partner placed first in the womens division.

Fellow shooter Dale Merton of St. Paul lists three reasons for Hagens success.

She rides fast but is in control and she has a fabulous horse, Merton said.

Hagen rides a 17-year-old quarter horse named Playboy.

Hes an athlete, Hagen said. He always gives 150 percent.

Playboy and most shooting horses dont seem to mind the sound of gunfire and the challenge of running a course.

It you introduce the sport to 100 horses, 99 of them will like it, Merton said.

Some horses are fitted with ear plugs because the sound of gunfire bothers them. But not Playboy.

All cowboy action shooters dress in pre-1900 clothing. Hagens wardrobe includes a silk scarf, a shirt without a collar and chaps. Nobody wears silver belt buckles because they were not commonly worn prior to 1900.

All competitors have an alias that they go by during competitions. Hagens alias is Wildcat Calhoon.

Hagen has been involved in the sport only three years but has been around horses most of her life. Her first horse was a Shetland pony she received when she was 3 years old and living in Perry.

Hagen, who lived in La Grande for 35 years, is the daughter of Beverly Kleng Berklund of La Grande, and the late Louis Kleng.

Hagen and her husband, Rick, have a 10-year-old daughter, Kelli.

Cowboy mounted action shooting is just one of many activities Kleng is involved in. She also coaches the Yamhill County High School Rodeo team and is a horse trainer. She trains horses for rodeo events and mounted shooting.

Hagen also is an artist, one who makes metal products. Her works include coffee tables and lamps.

Hagen said she enjoys cowboy action shooting primarily because of the friends she has made through the sport.

We are competitors but everyone helps everybody, Hagen said. If your horse gets hurt there are 10 people offering to let you use theirs... There is nothing cutthroat about this. We all root for each other.