A cutting horse is an athletic and willing animal possessing an innate “cow sense” and ability to respond quickly and turn sharply that is trained to keep a cow from returning to the herd. The horses involved are typically American Quarter Horses, although many other stock horse breeds are also used.
In the event, the horse and rider select and separate a cow (typically a steer or heifer) out of a small group. The cow then tries to return to its herd; the rider loosens the reins (“puts his hand down” in the parlance) and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the cow separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A contestant has 2 ½ minutes to show the horse; typically three cows are cut during a run, although working only two cows is acceptable. A judge awards points to the cutter based on a scale that ranges from 60 to 80, with 70 being considered average.
As the cow turns, the horse is to draw back over its hocks and then turn with the cow. The rider is centered over the horse keeping his or her eyes focused on the cow’s neck so as to anticipate the cow’s next move. The horse’s shoulders during a run are parallel with that of the cow’s. The team is judged on how the horse moves in relation to the cow. Leg aids may be used to steady a horse and keep them from falling in on the cow throughout a run.
History of Cutting Horses
Nowadays, cutters compete for millions of dollars in prizes. It wasn’t always that way.
A nineteenth century cowboy transplanted to the present day would probably be perplexed by the modern world’s high-tech marvels. But he’d still feel right at home at a cutting horse show. When American cowboys of the 1800s began using their best horses to separate individual cows from a herd, it was part of the daily job. They would never have imagined cutting as one of the world’s most popular equine sports. But each year, thousands of cutting events–from Austin to Australia–attract riders aged eight to eighty.
Cutting’s heritage runs strong and deep, like the centuries-old mesquites that flourish on the Texas plains. From Chisholm Trail to present day, cutting horses have been indispensable tools in the cattle trade. During the era of the open range, cattle from one outfit often drifted and mingled with those of other outfits. Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, neighboring ranchers would join in a roundup to sort out their brands.
Every outfit traveled with a remuda of horses. Within the remuda each cowboy had a string of horses, some of them more suitable for one job than another. For instance, a cowhand needed a steady mount to patrol the herd during the night, but in the morning he could ride last year’s bronc to the far reaches of the roundup circle. The cutting horse was an elite member of the remuda. A typical cutting horse might have started out in a cowboy’s string, but his sensitivity to cattle brought him to the attention of the roundup boss. He was the horse that pricked his ears toward a cow and followed her with his eyes. He instinctively knew not to crowd her, yet was wary of her every move. He made the difficult job of separating cattle easier and quicker. He even made it fun.
“It was worth the trip to brush country just to sit above Ol’ Gotch and feel his shoulders roll, watch his ears work and his head drop low when he looked an old steer in the eye,” said cowboy humorist Will Rogers after a visit to a South Texas ranch during the 1920s. As big cattle outfits gave way to small farms and ranches in the twentieth century, pickup trucks and squeeze chutes took the place of cow horses. A few large ranches still rounded up cattle the old-fashioned way, but cutting horses were fast becoming obsolete. Today, the National Cutting Horse Association has given the cutting horse new life in one of the world’s most exciting equine events.
The first advertised cutting contest was held at the 1898 Cowboy Reunion in Haskell, Texas. Fifteen thousand people, lured by ads in the Dallas News and the Kansas City Star, attended. Since the nearest railroad was fifty miles away, they came on horseback, or by wagon and hack. The cutting contest offered a prize of $150, a substantial sum in those days, and 11 riders entered. Old Hub–whose fans swore that he could work blindfolded and without a bridle–was brought out of retirement by Sam Graves for this one event. Graves primed the 22-year-old horse with oat mash and prairie hay, then he tied Old Hub to the back of a hack and led him all the way to Haskell–a two-day journey. It was a trip into the history books, and Graves set aside half of his winnings to ensure Old Hub had the best of care for the rest of his days.
The first record of cutting as an arena spectator event came at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas, when a cutting horse exhibition was added to the annual rodeo in 1919. It became a competitive event the following year. By 1946, there were so many cutting horse contests being held, under so many different sets of conditions and rules, that a group of 13 cutting horse owners met at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show and decided to form an association to establish standard rules and procedures for holding such competition. One of the founders, Ray Smyth, said, “When the meeting broke up, we had formed what we thought would be more or less a local cutting horse association. Someone remarked that with luck, we might even get as many as 50 members by another year.” Later, at a meeting in Mineral Wells, Texas, the association was incorporated, and Pat Dalton suggested the name ‘National Cutting Horse Association,’ because it looked as though it had the potential to grow into something big. The first show was held in Dublin, Texas, in the fall of 1946. Smyth recalled that secretary-treasurer Volney Hildreth guarded the association’s resources “with a big stick. If we wanted anything that cost money, Volney would tell us to get enough new members to pay for it.”
When NCHA was formed, most cutting horses were ranch geldings like Old Paint, a brown and white horse of unknown parentage that Smyth bought for $40 at Weatherford trade days. Old Paint became one of cutting’s first champions. But some of the big ranches had been breeding their own horses for years. The world famous King Ranch had a remuda of copper-colored horses descended from the Old Sorrel. Yellow Jacket horses, with golden coats and black manes and tails, filled the Burnett’s Triangle Ranch pastures; while the Pitchfork outfit was known for cast-iron cow ponies sired by Grey Badger.
By 1963, the association recorded the results of 727 events, of which 504 were recognized as NCHA championship events. In those days, cutters vied for a piece of $404,183 in prize money. That included $23,225 paid out at that year’s NCHA Futurity. Fast-forward to 2006, and the contestants at the NCHA Futurity will be divvying up more than $3.7 million–over a hundred times the offering of that first year.
Total purses at NCHA-approved shows now exceed $39 million annually. Yet for many, cutting’s greatest rewards are intangible. The bond between people and horses that makes the sport so special, also links it to the sweat and dust of the Old West, and sets it apart from all other events. “The people who brought cutting from the open range to the arena, and turned the skills of the cowman and cowboy into the contest, were real sports,” said Buster Welch, a legendary cutting champion. “That fine sportsmanship is still alive and well in cutting today.”
Cutting Horse Competition
Each contestant is allowed two and a-half minutes to cut at least two cows from the herd. The rider must bring at least one cow out from deep inside the herd during his run (performance). If he brings out a small group and waits for all but one to peel (go back to the herd), he has “cut for shape.”
His other cuts may be chipped from the edge of the herd. Extra credit is given if the rider drives the cow he wants fromdeep inside the herd. The contestant is assisted by four riders of his choice. Two are designated as herd holders. They are positioned on either side of the herd to keep the cattle from drifting into the working area.
Two riders stay between the cow that is being worked and the judges’ stands. These are the turnback riders; they turn the cow back to the contestant, if it tries to escape to the far end of the working area.
When the rider has clearly separated one cow from the herd, he must loosen his grip on the reins and allow the horse to have its head. The cow instinctively tries to return to the herd, but the horse must defend the herd and hold the cow.
Horses receive extra credit for their skill and style and the exertion used to keep the cow under control. The rider may decide when to stop working a cow, but he will be penalized if he quits when a cow is moving toward the horse. This is known as a “hot quit.” The rider also incurs a penalty for picking up his reins before he quits a cow. A horse will be penalized if he loses a cow (the cow returns before the rider quits it.)
It’s all about cattle in cutting!
Riders spend time watching the herd during the cattle change and mentally sorting the “good” cows from the “bad” ones. A good cow is intelligent, curious and alert. Although it wants to return to the herd, it will not bolt and run like a “bad” cow, but will try to find a “hole” just to one side of the horse for an escape route. The “good” horse will control a cow by matching its moves without being aggressive. If the cow runs, the horse must be quick and agile in order to head it.
Cutting demands extraordinary control on one hand, and lightning-quick action on the other. The smart and athletic American Quarter Horse has been bred for these qualities, as well as a love for the job, and about 96% of all horses competing in NCHA events are Registered American Quarter Horses, although Paints, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds and Arabians can also be competitive. Judges score contestants on a scale of 60 to 80 points.
Cutting, like skating or gymnastics, is judged by a panel of NCHA-certified judges who rate the horse’s performance in points. Each judge’s point rating may range from 60 – 80.
In the contest arena, the art of the cutting horse comes alive in a classic test of intelligence, training, breeding and skill. In competition, the cutting horse and rider must work together as a team in demonstrating their cattle handling skills. The contest begins as the pair approaches the herd. The horse and rider have two and a-half minutes to complete their work.
Major penalties include: horse quitting a cow; losing a cow; changing cattle after specific commitment; failure to separate a single animal after leaving the herd; horse turning tail to a cow; horse falling to the ground.
Credit on a run can be earned by a number of variables, such as: excellence in herd work; skill in driving and setting up a cow; deftly handling a difficult situation; showing courage in confronting a difficult situation.
Learn About Reined Cow Horses and Cutting Horses