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."
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,
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.
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