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Over the gate at the end of the arena, where 30 Santa Gertrudis cattle bunch up, is painted the famous "Running W" brand. A cutting horse works back and forth across the arena with a calf. You can hear the horse breathe, hear the flap of leather chaps. Back behind the bleachers, there's the chuck wagon, which normally feeds beef and beans three times a day to the vaqueros working cattle. The Mexican cook has lived most of his 61 years on the place. He will cut you a piece of Texas barbecue or a length of tripas (intestine) and hand it to you on a wedge of flat camp bread. Stephen (Tio) Kleberg, prince of one of the largest landholding families in the world, fetches coffee for ladies and old-timers in the stands. Everybody says, "Hello, how you? How you doin'?"
That's the atmosphere at the King Ranch cutting. At the Brink's Ranch, next stop on the National Cutting Horse Association's South Texas Circuit, it will be much the same: a serene setting, faultless arrangements, wide-open hospitality, a small friendly crowd of mostly participants and their families. No pretense, officiousness, snobbery. No organ music, flag-waving or let's-give-little-Maryjane-a-hand-folks announcing. Most of all there is no haste. A background of quiet ranch work. And the best cutting horses in the world.
To an extent, the good mood is handmade, a-purpose. The King Ranch isn't staging its first cutting competition merely for fun. Cutting horses have arrived. Around the mesquite fire I am obliged to sample the tripas while being told that so-and-so give 45 grand for a gelding, now that's a nonreproducing horse. Shorty Freeman turned down $500,000 for Doc O' Lena, sold a half interest for a quarter million. Stud fees are getting up around $2,000, $2,500. When a good horse comes along, why, some ol' bidnessman will buy 'im up, and ride 'im in the nonpro. Some these trainers is makin' a lot of money. The King Ranch here, they've went out and leased 1974's World Champion Cutting Horse, Mr. San Peppy, to breed and show for them. Don't you think they ain't got something up their sleeve.
Back in the arena a horse and rider quietly enter the herd, separate a single cow; the rider drops the reins slack and places his free hand on the saddle horn. The horse is working the cow by itself, heading off its attempts to rejoin the herd, making quick countermoves to every move of the cow. His head thrust balefully at the cow, his nostrils flared, ears back (the rule book says he should show "a great deal of expression, but no illness"), his hind feet well under him, his barrel low, his forefeet sometimes patting the dirt with taunts and bluffs as if to inspire the cow to test him, rolling left or right over his hocks sometimes a full 180 degrees, this 1,100-pound animal with 200 pounds on his back is doing things in some athletic fourth dimension.
Trying to think where the focus is, I say, "Horse legs and dirt." Those wedgy forearms, big flat knees, cannons that your thumb and forefinger would meet around, those springing fetlocks, those great buttocks grained with power, hind legs lost in exploding sand, the muffled hits of hoof in earth, the occasional click of shoe. "Legs and dirt. Love of the earthy life. It's related to making mud pies." Indeed, well-formed patties do fly up, high as the rider's head.
"Na-a-aw! Can't you see? It's eyes and ears." Eyes big and dark enough to hypnotize, ears wide-set and purty long, separately darting to attention fore and aft and sideways, or flicking paired and alert at the calf, or laid back flat with pure avidity, mock anger. "The horse is not supposed to bite the cow," Jim Reno says. Unnecessary roughness, the rule book calls it. "Lot of good cutting horses have the tendency."
Jim Reno is president of the NCHA. He makes the better part of his living doing sculpture. The sort of thing where you have a foal, cute little fellow, all curled up, and you have a little old kitten reaching out a paw to touch it on the nose. Compositions. The Leon Jaworski family has dibs on No. 1 of each work, of which Jim casts 15, no more (this is not counting the official NCHA trophies, which are reproductions of a Reno cutting horse and calf in the classic action pose: calf turning left, horse balancing on his hind legs, shoving off with the left foreleg in its countermove). Jim wants me to pass on some pointers that will make you appreciate this sport. If you knew what to look for, why there'd be an even bigger boom in cutting-horse training, his other line of work. There'd be big corporations putting up some $25,000-added purses and a whole lot more folks like George Bunn of Bunn-O-Matic coffee machines and Jim Milner of Taco Bell restaurants, who would invest in cutting horses and trainers' services, and, here's another great thing about cutting, they can show them themselves, instead of sitting in the stands and watching their horses run around a track. Gents of 50, 60 can not only sink some money in and gamble on horseflesh, but—let go the reins and hang on the horn, it only takes 2� minutes!—they can ride 'em themselves. All people need to do is learn how to watch a cutting and they'll love it.
Well, yes, sure, and Reno's wide-spaced toothy enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. But really, a spectator sport? What is so nice about it is it isn't. An average bunch of sports fans would dismantle the bleachers for something to do. Every five horses, the cattle are changed, and the new bunch has to be patiently settled and accustomed to horses working in and around it. Every third time that the cattle are changed, the arena is cleared and "freshened" with harrows. Seems like it's all halftimes, only without any flaming batons.
After the first go-round, Buster Welch invites everybody to his place for cocktails. Buster Welch is a figure. Sixth-grade education, a self-made man, partners in a couple ranches up around Midland, three times champion cutting-horse rider and co-owner with a man named Agnew from the state of Washington of this great horse the King Ranch has leased, Mr. San Peppy. The King Ranch got Buster along with the horse, to direct its breeding and training operation and to campaign the horse for one more world championship.
Buster doesn't mind at all. "D'rectly it'll take all you've got," he says. He grew up working cattle on West Texas ranches, learned by watching oldtimers shape herds in the open, cut cows for shipment, doctoring, moving bunches to other pastures; then he would drive the remuda to wherever they were going to work next, while the other cowboys went and had their social life. "I love horses, and I love women," Buster says. "If I'd a been rich, I'd a been a playboy."