I decided to ride way outside my comfort zone for my last adventure in this year of exploring new disciplines. With a helmet, breeches and tall boots I headed to a cutting horse clinic taught by a cowboy from Texas.
The clinic was held at Fletcher’s Horse World in Waterford, Ontario, and hosted by Scott and Laurie Reed of Reed Farms in Norfolk County. The Reeds had invited their trainer, three-time National Cutting Horse Association world champion Casey Crouch, up from Texas to share some of his skills and knowledge with cutting riders in southwestern Ontario.
If you’re an English riding tenderfoot like me, you might not even know what cutting is — but out of all horse pursuits, it’s one that most closely resembles its original roots. It comes from the time of the wild west, when herds of cattle needed to be separated for roundups and veterinary care and cowboys didn’t yet have motorized quads, instead relying on their trusty, agile cow horses to get the job done. Today, it still holds those practical elements – many of the people who participate in the sport are also using their cutting skills at home to work cattle.
While Crouch taught attendees, I sat in the stands and spoke with his wife Chelsa — also an accomplished cutting rider — about the sport that takes up most of their lives (their teenage son Chaser was the reserve world youth champion this year).
Chelsa explained to me the reason why Casey had started all the clinic attendees out on ‘the flag’ (trademarked: Robo Cow) — it’s a slow and calm way of introducing people to the quick side-to-side movements of a cutting horse. It’s also a way for horse and rider to practice and perfect their cutting without chasing a real, live cow.
“Cattle are expensive and unpredictable so the flag is a tool used to train the horse and rider so we can focus on ourselves and not worry about what the cow is doing,” said Chelsa.
At a cutting event, you have two and a half minutes to show the judge how well your horse can cut cattle out of a herd. During the time, you must cut at least two cows from the herd and the ride is scored on a scale ranging from 60 to 80 points.
Soon, it was my turn to try my hand at cutting. The Reeds loaned me one of their veteran mounts – a 17 year old Quarter Horse named Easy Smith (a.k.a. Weed). Weed and I had a few minutes to get used to each other and for me to learn his buttons. I practiced my turns, forward aids, stopping and backing up.
Then it was time to cut my Robo Cow (everyone at the clinic agreed that as a beginner cutting rider, it was too dangerous to have me try to cut a cow on my first time out). I listened to Casey as he instructed me to approach the Robo Cow and point Weed’s nose towards the flag.
“Hold that saddle horn,” he said, firing up the Robo Cow. The instructor (Crouch in this case) controls the Robo Cow with a remote, determining whether it will go left or right and at what speed. As soon as the flag jumped to the right, Weed lurched forward, leaving me a bit behind the motion. I quickly regained my balance, though (thank goodness all those dressage lessons that have helped me stay centered on a horse!).
“Drop your hand!” Crouch instructed as Weed dug into the dirt and moved towards the Robo Cow again. The hardest thing for me was to completely ‘let go’ of the reins and trust the horse to get the job done. But as I became more comfortable, I realized that Weed had a better idea of what was going on than I did, so I should just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The other thing I found difficult was relaxing my upper body enough to absorb the quick shifts of Weed. In dressage and most English disciplines, you are always taught a strong core is key to good equitation. But in cutting, a strong, solid core can work against you, because you aren’t allowing yourself to loosely follow the motion of the horse.
Crouch quickened the speed of the Robo Cow and for about 20 seconds Weed was flying – back and forth, back and forth, dropping his head and keeping his eyes locked on the device. He had what the clinic attendees call “cowiness” – a real instinct and desire to do this sport.
In two and a half minutes it was all over. The small crowd cheered. I grinned. It was quite the ride.
Here’s a look at what it’s like to ride a cutting horse: