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We loaded three-year-old bulls and carried them around the ranch in a stock trailer, vaccinating them and dropping them off wherever Buster wanted. Betweentimes, Buster issued commands over the truck radio and speculated about our horses, for whom we all had such high hopes. Of his own stallion, Peppy Ole, Buster said, "God has decided to give Buster Welch one more good horse."
Meanwhile, Laurie and April had gone to Ardmore, Okla., to practice for the Futurity. I had no idea if Laurie was gaining an advantage or falling behind me, because things occur in Oklahoma that are clothed in secrecy. We had wished each other luck, knowing that many of the sorest issues of the age lay in the outcome of our competition. If, for example, Laurie won the Futurity and I fell off my horse, nothing anyone could say would help me. If I won and Laurie fell off her horse, some of the things that have caused the pots and pans to fly around our house in the last few years would be with us again.
The next morning, early, Buster and I were in the coliseum along with 50 young cutting horses, their riders and plenty of crossbred cattle. I rode Sugar around for a while; it was good to be on her familiar back again. Then I joined Buster as he watched his son Greg work a horse he had trained, a quick, attentive stud, perfectly prepared.
In a cutting-horse competition, judges evaluate the performances of horses and riders as if they were working on an open range. A herd of about 60 cattle is brought into an arena and settled along the back fence. Two mounted herd-holders are stationed on either side of the herd, and a pair of mounted turn-back riders are in front, prepared to keep the cattle that have been cut focused on returning to the herd. The mounted cutter enters the herd and selects a cow to drive out. He then must control the cow until he releases her and cuts another. He has 2½ minutes to cut either two or three cattle. The rider is awarded points based on how cleanly he makes each cut, how well he controls the cow afterward and how difficult the cow is to handle.
A cutting horse not only has to be quicker than the cow but also has to have the strategic sense to deal with the cow's bold first moves. The rider, through weight shifts and other body signals (such as leg pressure and touches of the spurs), can tell the horse what he thinks the cow will do. The rider must also react without interference to moves the horse devises on his own. These shared signals constitute the elusive "feel" of cutting.
As Greg schooled his horse, Buster explained things to me. "Pick up that cow, go with it," he said. "Shadow that cow. Don't get in a race. If you get in a race, let the cow win. And when you're cutting a cow, stalk it. That will tell your horse what you are up to."
Then a trainer named Gary Bellenfant worked a mare on three different hard-running cows without ever having to raise the rein to make an adjustment. Buster remarked that we might just as well be trying to make violins. It took thousands of hours, no matter how smart and talented you were, to train a cutting horse. The horse had to see so many cattle, and he had to grow up and experience the world enough for new places not to terrify him and prevent him from doing his work. These cutting horses were, after all, excitable young animals who were being asked to do and understand a lot.
Buster's wife, Sheila, worked her horse cleanly, quietly. "Next time I get on her will be at Fort Worth," she said afterward. She was back on her the next day. In the uninterfering style of riding that Buster advocates, Sheila excels from long practice and tutelage and also from her intensely competitive spirit.
During my week in Sweetwater I took long hikes in the mesquite-dotted hills, watched 50 horses work a day, rode Sugar and felt how far she'd come under Buster's saddle, and by the end of the week I was close to chewing wood. I was amazed at the ability of some seasoned cutters to go into a state of suspended animation for days on end in the coliseum's bleachers. On Thanksgiving there was a general retreat to the cavelike twilight of motel rooms for football games. I decided a change of cuisine was in order and deserted Whataburger for McDonald's, where I spent part of Thanksgiving evening listening to a spirited debate between two old farmers about Jack Ruby.
It was time to head for Fort Worth. I drove east through country given over mainly to cotton, with large cotton wagons that gleaned the bolls from windrows in the fields. There was a beautiful big sun out, and soft, indefinite clouds. The hours on the highway isolated my hopes for the Futurity and then twisted them into baseless fears: I can't get my horse into the coliseum because I can't find the gate; I ride Sugar around Fort Worth in a traffic jam, unable to reach an off-ramp; my chaps blow over my face while I'm trying to cut cattle, and I can't find the herd in the deafening laughter. Various bursts of demoralizing nonsense.