For me, cutting perfectly captures the cowboy lifestyle. It’s a sport that has practical ranching roots, when herds of cattle needed to be separated for roundups and veterinary care. 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.
But the sport as a competitive event is held in an arena, where horse and rider are pitted against the speed and agility of a cow hell-bent on getting back together with his herd.
And that’s what I set out to learn about in my final adventure of this year: riding a cutting horse.
In mid-September, I dove right into the world of cowboys and cutting horses by attending a clinic at Fletcher’s Horse World in Waterford, Ontario, 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.
While Casey taught in the arena, his wife Chelsa, who is also an accomplished cutting rider, explained the sport to me.
The clinic attendees were taking turns chasing a flag attached to a tiny motor that zipped up and down a rope. Casey controlled the flag with a remote and offered instruction, urging riders to keep their horses facing the flag, to drop their hands and use more leg.
But why were the horse and rider teams chasing a flag and not a cow? The answer is twofold. For one, for beginner cutting riders, the flag is a slow and calm way to introduce the person to the quick side-to-side movement of the horse. Plus, “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.
Throughout this part of the clinic, I repeatedly heard Casey remind riders to “drop your hand.” Apparently, once a horse and rider team pick a cow they want to cut from the herd, judges look favourably on the riders who drop their hands and let the horse do his job. These horses who naturally want to cut cattle are said to have ‘a lot of cow in them.’
In a cutting competition, you have two and a half minutes to show the judge how good you and your horse are at cutting cattle.
During the allotted time, the horse and rider must cut at least two cows from the herd, and one must be a ‘deep’ cut (the cow must come from deep inside the herd instead of from the periphery).
Each rider selects four helper riders to assist them in the competition. Two of the helpers are the ‘herd holders’ who keep the herd from wandering into the competition area, while the other two helpers are ‘turnback riders’ who keep the cow from escaping to the far end of the arena.
The rider is scored on a scale ranging between 60 and 80 points. Penalties are given for many things: five points are taken off if the horse ‘loses the cow’ and it runs back to the herd; and if a rider quits working a cow while the cow is running at the horse and rider, it’s called a ‘hot quit’ and you lose three points.
A horse and rider team can ‘quit’ a cow and select another to work without penalty if the cow has completely stopped moving or turned its rear to face the horse and rider.
As a frame of reference, Chelsa said that a score of about 74 will pretty much guarantee a win or top three placing at a cutting competition. Average scores range between 72 and 73.
Beyond that, judges like to see a good show. “The bigger the stop and the prettier the step, the better the run,” said Chelsa.
For beginners in the sport, Chelsa recommends getting an older, more experienced horse, noting that they have horses in their late teens that are still sound, solid competitors.
Almost without exception, Quarter Horses are used in cutting competitions. According to the National Cutting Horse Association, 96 per cent of the horses entered at competition are Quarter Horses, while Paints, Thoroughbreds, Appaloosas and Arabians make up the remaining four per cent.
Like most disciplines, selecting a horse with the right personality is paramount. I had more than one attendee at the clinic tell me that the ‘cowiness’ of the horse will undoubtedly make up for small conformation flaws.
For an outsider to the discipline, cowiness can be hard to define. Chelsa said the cutting community has particular Quarter Horse bloodlines that they like to breed for cowiness. Essentially, this just means a horse’s aptitude and interest in the sport and their ability to ‘read’ a cow’s movement and temperament.
Beyond personality and cowiness, Casey likes a horse with a short back as he says the longer backed horses have more trouble with the agile moves required in cutting.
When Casey is training a cutting horse, he starts young, usually at two years old, after they’ve had 90 to 120 days of training. For a young horse, he’ll work with them four to five days a week. “With a young horse, you have a 10- to 15-minute window where they’ll learn something,” he said during a break from teaching the clinic.
The horses don’t work cows every day. Sometimes it’s basic movements like rollbacks and transitions. Casey also says he likes taking his horses ‘to pasture,’ which means taking them out with the cattle in a more realistic setting. “They need that, for their minds, to have something different. My show horses will go sort cows,” he said. “Today these horses are bred differently. They’re much more intelligent and really sensitive.”
Because of this, Casey said his training methods have had to change. Instead of physically tiring a horse out, the trainers need to be smarter and give the horses exercises that challenge their minds.
I Climb Aboard
I wasn’t able to actually try cutting cattle as it was my first time aboard a cutting horse and I needed time and practice to get used to the quick movement of the horse. Laurie Reed, who was co-hosting the clinic, told me that if a beginner rider loses balance, the horse can continue cutting the cow and it can become dangerous. So for safety reasons, all beginner riders should start on a flag.
For my turn, I was able to use an old hand at the sport – a 17-year-old Quarter Horse named Easy Smith (a.k.a. Weed) who belonged to Scott.
The first thing Casey asked me to do when I got on Weed was practice my turns. He asked me to open my hand to the right and left and use my outside leg to push Weed in the direction I wanted to go. Weed was sensitive and light and my riding background from other disciplines easily transferred over and we had no trouble executing the turns.
Next, we rode up to the flag and Casey had me point Weed’s nose towards it. He instructed me to grab the saddle horn with my right hand and keep the reins in my left (I’m left handed) but to ‘drop my hand’ and let Weed have his head.
Then, Casey started moving the flag up and down the rope. Immediately, Weed’s ears pricked forward and he got low, stuck his nose out and followed the flag. When Casey stopped the flag, Weed slammed on the brakes, rocked back on his haunches and prepared to launch himself in whatever direction the flag moved again.
Unlike in English disciplines where you usually have to keep your upper body upright, Casey instructed me to be loose and fluid through my torso and upper body to absorb Weed’s quick movements.
To be honest, I felt like I didn’t do much when I was on Weed. He was an expert babysitter who just let me concentrate on myself and get used to the motion of a cutting horse. Laurie also told me that Weed moved at a slower pace with me, but when he was actually cutting a cow the movement would be much quicker.
As Casey and others at the clinic told me, a good cutting horse will do much of the work once you point him towards the cow. This is why having a sensitive and intelligent horse is so important in cutting.
The entire clinic watched my 10-minute foray into cutting and the crowd was quite entertained by the girl in full seat riding breeches, a tucked in polo T-shirt and Tipperary helmet. Everyone cheered and whooped as Weed took me through the paces.
When I finally got off, I was sweating. I didn’t realize how much fitness that short burst took.
“It’s quite the thrill, isn’t it?” asked Chelsa as I dismounted from Weed.
“It sure is,” I said, grinning.