A cutting horse is a horse that is used to separate single cows from a herd during a competition and prevent them from returning to the herd for a set period of time. Horses used for this event can be any breed, but Quarter Horses are extremely well-suited to the task through decades of specific breeding and training.
In the 1800s, cutting cattle was part of a cowboy’s daily job on the open range, where cattle from one outfit often mingled with those of other herds and twice a year ranchers would join in a roundup to sort out their brands. It was also useful for singling out herd members for branding and veterinary care. As these activities were gradually taken over by machinery and trucks, working cutting horses became scarce. In 1898, the first cutting horse competition was held in Haskell, Texas, and 15,000 people came out to watch it. By 1946, the popularity of these contests resulted in the formation of the National Cutting Horse Association to establish a standard set of procedures and rules. Now, cutting it is recognized as a popular sport around the world.
Whether Quarter Horse, Paint, or Appaloosa, any sound, sane, agile horse could become a successful cutting horse. They need to possess (or develop) ‘cow sense’, which means they are willing to pursue a cow with interest, following it with their eyes and bodies, being aware of its every move while being careful not to crowd it. An ideal horse for a beginner to this sport would be an older, seasoned horse that will not be confused by an inexperienced rider’s body language or incorrect cues.
At a cutting competition, the rider selects one cow from a herd, separates it from the herd and prevents it from returning for 2.5 minutes. The competition is judged on how well the horse anticipates and reacts to the cow’s attempts to return to the herd, as well as how challenging the cow makes this task for the horse. The rider must have a loose rein and remain quiet so as not to influence the horse; any visible rider cues will be penalized. Penalties also include a horse quitting on a cow, losing a cow, changing what cow they’re committed to, failing to separate a cow from the herd, falling down or turning its tail to a cow.