The family that rides (and shoots) together...


For Thomases of Deaver, mounted shooting a family affair

For 16-year-old Dacean Thomas, June 26, 2016, is a day she can’t quite remember.

For Dacean’s family — dad Jason, mom Darby and little sister Gabby — it’s a day they’re not likely to forget. Riding on their ranch between Deaver and Frannie after retrieving a wandering horse, Dacean’s mount took a spill, landing both horse and rider on the hard, rocky ground. The Powell High School junior suffered a severe head injury and was flown by helicopter to Billings, then to Salt Lake City.

“I don’t remember the accident itself,” Dacean said. “I only remember the last three days in Salt Lake City. I remember that morning [of the accident] going to catch a cow that got out in Powell at the vet. We stopped and ate McDonald’s, and that’s the last thing I remember. I don’t remember getting home or anything after that.”

Dacean’s mother Darby said there were no witnesses to the accident itself, but when they arrived on the scene, they feared the worst.

“We thought she was dead when we got to her,” Darby said, still visibly affected by the memory. “She wasn’t breathing. It was a tough go. We just kept thinking ‘This can’t be happening.’”

Emergency responders from Deaver and Lovell were quick on the scene, and by the time the Thomas family reached Billings, Dacean was already in surgery.

“The doctor up there was really impressed; he said it was probably one of the fastest times he’d seen from incident to the time he had her in surgery,” Jason said. “Considering the location of the accident — how far we were from everything — made it even more impressive.”

Dacean spent just 10 days in the hospital, amazing doctors who cautioned the Thomases to expect at least a six-week stay with her kind of injury. The initial prognosis was less-than-favorable, but Dacean’s tenacity continues to impress, as she’s made an almost complete recovery.

“There were kids down there in four-wheeler accidents that had similar injuries,” Jason said of the hospital in Salt Lake City. “They had been in there for weeks, months. But after 10 days, she wanted to come home. They tell you all of the things that could be wrong and what to expect, but what little changes that have happened are nothing compared to what could have been.”

Darby agreed with her husband’s assessment.

“There are things that we’ve had to get used to, because they’re not the same,” she said. “But for the most part, we brought home the kid that left. That was our biggest worry.”

As Dacean continued to improve, one of the activities she missed the most was riding, more specifically training for and competing in mounted shooting competitions. Jason, Gabby and Dacean are members of the Desperados Shooting Club, and for the first time in more than a year, they will all participate in this weekend’s 2017 Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association Wyoming State Championship at the Park County Fairgrounds. Dacean participated in a warm-up event at the Park County Fair last month, looking as if she hadn’t missed a beat.

“They told her she probably was never going to be able to ride again,” Gabby said of her sister. “She was kind of timid with the horses at first, but after a while, it was like, ‘OK, I want back on.’”

For her part, Dacean said she can’t imagine anywhere she would rather be.

“It feels really good to be back on a horse again,” she said.

Competing as a family

Mounted shooting is a sport for riders of all ages and skill-levels, combining elements of old-time wild west show exhibitions with elements of equestrian competitions, such as barrel-racing and pole bending. Riding patterns are selected randomly, with riders firing at 10 balloon targets with single-action .45s, loaded with black powder blanks, as they compete for the fastest times with the most accurate shots. Like any shooting or riding event, safety is always at the forefront in every mounted shooting competition.

Jason said his family became involved with mounted shooting about five years ago, at the insistence of their neighbor, Wyoming Desperados President Albert Kukuchka.

“Albert just kinda kept after me about it until I agreed to give it a shot,” Thomas said, chuckling. “He finally got me to a practice, and I just fell in love with it.”

Thinking it might be something he could involve the whole family in, he began working with his daughters to gauge their interest. Since both had been riding since before they can remember, it wasn’t a difficult sell.

“They had to go with me, so they began to take an interest,” Jason explained. “It was probably the second shoot we went to, we ended up in Bozeman, and there was a gal up there that competed that we got to be friends [with] and the girls saw they could do it. It just kind of went from there.”

Dacean began competing four or five years ago; 13-year-old Gabby started two years ago.

“Gabby is getting better; she has her own horse now,” Jason explained. “She’s really taking to it, which is fun.”

Very few people, especially among the girls’ social circle, choose mounted shooting as a hobby, giving the girls a unique set of bragging rights with their friends.

“Two years ago we did a demo at the Cowley Rodeo,” Jason explained. “A lot of Dacean’s friends came, and had never seen it. They were a little bit in awe when we finally got done.”

As the mom and honorary captain of the bunch (she trains with the family, but doesn’t compete), Darby said she doesn’t worry when the girls are in the arena, knowing that it’s something that comes naturally to them.

“They grew up on horses, and it’s really no different than barrel racing,” she said. “The only difference is they have a gun in their hand.”

Moving forward

More than a year after the accident, there are still days where the memory can be overwhelming for the family.

“I still have my days where I can’t walk that section of the field,” Darby said, motioning to the pasture where the accident occurred. “It happened right there. I just can’t do it; I can’t go out there.”

Though she is improving daily, Jason said his oldest daughter still deals with the accident’s effects. Thankfully, she’s returning to the normal life of a 16-year-old, excited for the start of volleyball practice next week and looking forward to her junior year at PHS.

“She still has some PTSD-type things she deals with,” he said. “She has seizures, but the doctors have her on medication and are managing that really well. We just take every day as it comes, and it keeps getting better. Getting back up and riding again has really made a difference.”

Safety is always in the back of Jason and Darby’s minds when the family competes, especially in the wake of Dacean’s accident. Though he once considered it a parent’s choice as to whether a young rider should wear a safety helmet, Jason is now whole-heartedly in favor of it.

“I encourage it,” he said of making helmets mandatory for kids. “My kids will not ride without helmets; my arena will never have a kid without a helmet. And I think now it’s gaining more acceptance. I try not to be pushy about it, but it’s a safety tool — use it. I’ve seen what happens when you’re not wearing it.”

Mounted shooters from around the state will battle it out at the Park County Fairgrounds this weekend.

From Friday through Sunday, the Wyoming Desperados Mounted Shooters will host the Fifth Annual “Battle of the Basin” — the 2017 Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association Wyoming State Championships.

Admission to the event, which will include vendors, concessions and entertainment, is free.

Things will kick off Friday night with the Wild Wyoming Jackpot and Silent Auction at 6 p.m. All proceeds will benefit Cole’s Western Wishes, a non-profit organization providing help to agricultural youth in Montana and Wyoming.

Saturday begins with the Main Match at 10 a.m., with three stages: pistol, rifle and shotgun. Saturday night brings a benefit concert and dance featuring “The Rewinders,” at 8 p.m. There’s a $5 gate fee for the concert.

Sunday starts with Cowboy Church at 8 a.m. and a continuation of the Main Match at 10 a.m. An award presentation will follow the final match.

For more information, contact Albert Kukuchka at 307-202-0793.