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That winter I had work that took me out of the state and later out of the country. I sent Sugar to Tom Campbell, a good cowboy in Brady, Mont., and he gave her back to me in the spring of 1990 much improved. I rode her through the summer and fall and used up every cow in our valley trying to teach Sugar to run, stop and turn correctly.
Next we sorted the ranch's calves off their mothers, and I schooled Sugar on them. At first their speed frightened her, and she worked wide-eyed, with her head practically in my lap. Eventually she settled down and tried to understand the rapid little animals, but they often beat her. When we sold the calves in October, Sugar and I worked the mothers. This was like going back in time for her, and she handled these cattle almost nonchalantly. Her big dark eyes sparkled with pleasure.
By this time, we could move quietly in the herd and sort out an individual cow. Sugar would run, stop and turn intensely to hold the cow, but without continuing guidance from the reins, she would soon get lost. Cows would head-fake her or press her back and run into the herd.
In cutting-horse competition, the reins cannot be used after a cow is cut. To hold the cow away from the herd, the horse must work on a slack rein. I wanted to enter Sugar in the most prestigious of all cutting-horse events: the NCHA Futurity, an annual competition in Fort Worth for 3-year-old horses that have never been shown before. The Futurity was just a couple of months away, at the end of November, and it was starting to snow. Hard as it was for me to admit, Sugar was still not a contest horse, any more than I was a real horse trainer.
I called my friend Buster Welch, the legendary trainer who lives outside the West Texas town of Sweetwater. If anyone could put my program on track, Buster could. I realized that he might not want another horse to ride, and even if he did, he might not like mine. Buster, 62, had had open-heart surgery two years earlier. When I called, he was ranching 50,000 acres in addition to getting cutting horses ready for himself, his wife and about half a dozen friends who, like me, wanted to get something done at the Futurity.
I was fortunate that he took Sugar on. I knew what kind of cutting horses Buster liked, because he had told me. He liked them "steeped in background, never crippled and never had their hearts broke." I had ridden Sugar plenty in her short life, and I hoped he would find that she qualified. I sent her down to Texas.
I gave Sugar about a week to get a good look at those snappy West Texas cattle while Buster filled her suggestion box. Then I called Buster. His thoughts were composed. "Tom, I believe you held on to the reins too long," he said. "If you ride two-handed too long, a horse will stay a bronc all his life. When Sugar got here, I thought she couldn't outrun a fat man, but I guess she was only tired. I've shortened up her stride and quickened her moves wherever I could. You had a beautiful stop on her, but they really don't pay you to stop in Fort Worth."
He paused and let me take all this in. "She's got all the speed that is required," he continued, "and she is not going to quit us. You never gave her more than she wanted or could understand."
I wondered if I had given her enough to understand. Then Buster added, "But if they call from Fort Worth and want to put the Futurity back a month, say yes."
I headed for Sweetwater by way of Abilene, Texas, to meet Buster and practice before heading for Fort Worth. The Futurity has various divisions, but the principal ones are the non-professional class and the open, which is primarily for trainers. I was getting ready for the non-pro, and I had bitten off all I could chew.