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Shooting competitors rally around one of their own at Grand Forks County Fairgrounds

Shawna Gackle, 30, laughs while posing for a photograph at the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Competition Saturday at the Grand Forks County Fair. Gackle suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, and was told by her doctors that she would only live to the age of eight. The competitors in the mounted shooting competition all wore purple ribbons in support of Shawna and to also raise awareness to this terrible disease. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 8
Dahlan, ND resident Fred McVicker directs his horse Shooter while firing at targets during a round of competition at the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Contest Saturday at the Grand Forks County Fair. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 8
Competitors load their pistols prior to competing at the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Contest Saturday at the Grand Forks Fair. The competitors fire pistol cartridges filled with hot embers that only travel about 20 feet. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 8
Volunteers run out to reload the targets with fresh balloons prior to every competitor's run. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 8
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A young cowboy plays in the mud. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)6 / 8
Keith Bartels and his horse Babe pose for a portrait Saturday at the Grand Forks County Fair. A Level-Four mounted shooter, six being the highest, Bartels has traveled all around the country competing in a sport he refers to as his hobby. "I'm a welder by trade," Bartels said. "There's just not enough money in it." (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)7 / 8
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Heavy rains left most of the Grand Forks County Fairgrounds brown with mud Saturday, but the color purple managed to break through the mucky gloom in the horse arena.

There, participants of the cowboy mounted shooting competition wore purple to honor fellow rider, 30-year-old Shawna Gackle, and raise awareness for cystic fibrosis.

Gackle, in attendance with her mother Carol and father Dave, had no words for how grateful she was that the riding community came together to raise awareness for the genetic disorder affecting both she and her 33-year-old sister Tarah.

“It’s a pretty humbling experience,” she said as her mother passed purple ribbons out to those sitting around them.

Cystic fibrosis mainly affects the lungs and causes breathing difficulties because of mucus buildup in the lungs, which in turn can lead to other lung problems.

“She’s fortunate to have surrounded herself with a community of people who are full of love,” Dave Gackle said.

At the competition, friends sold bracelets and horseshoes in an effort to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis.

Getting started

The Gackles watched from the bleachers as riders competed in a sport Shawna discovered back in the summer of 2009.

While working as a wrangler in Arizona, a group of mounted competition shooters arrived at the ranch and did a demonstration for Shawna and her coworkers.

The sport requires riders on horseback to navigate a course and shoot balloons with revolvers while avoiding cones and barrels.

 “I saw it and said ‘I got to do that,’” Gackle said, who had competed in barrel racing when she was younger.

Competitors are required to dress in traditional Western wear. They shoot blanks firing small embers a few feet and are required to use .45-caliber single-action revolvers similar to those used in the late 1800s.

After learning the ropes and competing in Wyoming, she moved back to North Dakota and joined the North Dakota Mounted Shooting Association. Before jumping into the competition, Gackle traveled with the group as an equine massage therapist — a practice she’s been certified in since 2004. 

“I figured massage works so well for people, I thought I would see if it works on horses, too,” she said.

Staying strong

When she’s not competing with her quarter horse, Wally, or helping her parents around their farm located near Jud, N.D., Gackle makes YouTube videos chronicling her life with cystic fibrosis.

She calls the series “Thirsty Thursday” and shares her struggles and triumphs with viewers, including how her experience with the disorder has brought her closer to God.

“I’ve just let the Lord take the reins,” Gackle said of her life. “It’s amazing that all the paths I took led me to a day like today.”

She added it’s easy to get pulled down and only see the negative when living with a serious health condition, but having her parents and friends from the shooting association there has allowed her to rise above it.

“You’re quickly reminded that you’re strong and you just need to keep fighting,” Gackle said.