The women sit in
a big circle on the lawn in front of Buster's Spanish-style cottage, looking
for all the world like an encounter group. Marion Flynt, the grand old man of
cutting, many times president of the association, holds court in a folding
chair. About the time the third person feels compelled to inform me, with some
compound of envy, admiration and pride, that the King Ranch raises 90% of its
help, I happen on to two young cowboys named Kellum who put a different slant
on South Texas and the cutting-horse world. Kent, a pretty youth of 18, is a
poet; yep, just got back from "recitin' " in Taos. Ronnie has worked
for the King Ranch in Australia, where the family controls over 11 million
acres, some of which can't be awfully desirable because the Australian
government leases it to the ranch at $1.25 per square mile. Ronnie says the
judges gave him a 145 today when his roan earned at least a 148. He says the
judges favor a certain central clique here, says they admit it openly, tell
him, "You want to win some cuttings, Ronnie? Stick around 20 years. Think
we gonna let you come back from Australia and bump some of our own?"
I ask him how
come there's been no Calcutta, and he says, "Diehards. These people are
such diehards, man—."
heard, of course, that it's illegal."
That draws a
whole bunch of hooting and thigh-slapping. "Illegal! Are you kidding me,
man? Do you think that anybody in Texas is gonna bother the King Ranch if they
do something—yee-hoo!—what'd you say? Illeg—whoop! Yee-ha! I mean—. Diehards,
man! I mean—!"
Dinner is at the
main house. Mrs. King reportedly told the architects, "Make it so a man
will be comfortable with his boots and spurs on." In the room where the
banquet is spread, there are silver bowls won by Assault, a Derby finish over
the fireplace, shelves of recent Mr. San Peppy trophies, a quarter-horse
statuette centerpiece and mock prize ribbons hanging from the chandelier. With
reference to Ron Kellum's complaint, Buster Welch says, "You know the first
thing you got to do in this sport?" Nope. What? "You have got to get on
horseback." He turns out to be a self-made intellectual, a reader (and
quoter) of Marshall McLuhan, Nikita Khrushchev, Robert Ardrey. "A
horse," Buster says, "has to get inside the cow's bubble." Tio
Kleberg leads the diehards in staying up late, and in dancing and singing in
Spanish, and in yee-ha!-ing to the music of four Mexican guitarist-singers from
Corpus Christi, who eventually acquire names like Kojak and Hippy. People keep
coming up to Tio like old uncles and aunts, proud of him, telling him (maybe
they are uncles and aunts), "Tio, this—this is what it's all about."
Next morning we feel obliged to explain to other houseguests who might have
been trying to sleep, "Well, when the host wants to enjoy himself, y' can't
just go to bed on 'im, now can you?"
I begin to see
better on the second day, to warm to the cutting itself as much as to the
comfortable Texas air. A sorrel stallion named Jay Freckles, owned by radio
station CFCW in Camrose, Alberta, puts it together for me.
The horse is
judged first on how he enters the herd—quietly, delicately. At least once in
his 2�-minute run the horse should cut the herd deep, clear to the back wall.
The cattle part, maybe stream together around him as he turns. The rider holds
the reins up, squeezes him lightly forward to interrupt the stream. Much eye
and ear expression here as the horse awaits the signal that this—no, not that
one—this one, yep, go ahead, is his plaything. Forward a little. All right, the
cow's alone. She knows it, too, and after a second's hesitation she dashes for
the bunch. Now the horse should break out, Jim Reno says, "like a racing
quarter horse out of a gate," yet without disturbing the cattle forming
back into a single mass behind him, and head off that dash. He should show his
ability to drive the cow some distance away from the bunch, "set the cow
up" in a working position near the middle of the arena, and counter every
move of the cow to get back to the herd. The moves should have snap. A good
horse just loves to work a cow, and the best somehow draw the cow to them.
"This ol' horse I ride," Jim says, "you can hear him grinding his
teeth, whinnying at the cow, and when the buzzer goes and we finish, he always
for reining or otherwise "visibly cuing" your horse, for letting a cow
reach the back fence, for flushing cows from the herd, for quitting a cow that
has the advantage of you, for going past the heifer more than half a length.
You're disastrously penalized for losing a cow back into the herd. You're given
credit for cutting, working and quitting in the center, for riding with a loose
rein throughout the performance. For a high score, toward the middle 70s from
each judge marking you on a scale between 60 and 80, you've got to cut cows
that don't just romp back and forth across the width of the arena, that try
hard to get back in the herd, cows that really "try" the horse.
moves are so deep and prompt and crisp and prescient that his cows become
brilliant partners in an action as fascinating as surf, and as intricately
fluid. With his throat arched almost yearningly toward the heifer, he does
actually seem to draw from her the moves that he is already foiling. His
outline becomes electrical. You can't look away, and when his run is over you
already miss it like a lost passion.
Buster Welch and Mr. San Peppy from competing in the King Ranch's cutting,
which Jay Freckles handily wins, marking 151 in the finals. The cutting at the
Brink's Ranch shapes up as a duel between these two horses, the 1976 campaign
in a nutshell. Mr. San Peppy is a little bit ahead in winnings so far, from
Arizona's Sun Circuit and earlier Texas cuttings at Refugio and San Antonio.
But Mr. San Peppy needs a good lead, because he'll have to be pulled off the
road for a couple of months for breeding.