helped just to walk around and visit with people. I watched a few runs with Ned
Huntt, a cutter from Maryland who has ridden all his life. He is in the
landscaping business. He lost an arm in his late teens and, unable to hold the
saddle horn, he rides as we all should, by sheer balance. He was watching the
clock, waiting for his turn. Ned and I talked about the difficulty of
controlling all the variables in cutting competition, like your place in the
draw, the mood of your horse, the freshness of your cattle and the quality of
the herd holders and turn-back riders. Ned thought these variables were the
most daunting aspect of the sport, the one thing that took the pleasure out of
it for some cutters.
I watched a few
runs with Spencer Harden, who trains his own horses in Millsap, Texas, though
he's a non-professional. Last year he won the open class, an extremely rare
occurrence for a non-pro.
I walked around
with my 11-year-old daughter Annie and ran into L.H. Wood standing in line to
buy a cup of coffee. He trains border collies, and I have one of his dogs, Ella
H., a useful ranch dog and gifted beggar of table scraps. He shows horses
trained by his son Kobie and has been a frequent Futurity finalist. He didn't
look as nervous as I felt. He backed up to a wall and made his hat rise on his
head as if by magic while he inflated his cheeks. When we walked back to the
arena, Annie demanded an explanation.
The alarm went
off the morning of my first go-round. The shower in the residential hotel had
no hot water, and I woke up too fast. As I tried to get a quick snack for
breakfast, the toaster caught fire. I headed for the coliseum. Matt Lopez, a
Sioux cowboy who works for Buster, was riding Sugar around. I took Sugar from
Matt and joined the competitors loping in a circle to warm up. Matt said,
Suddenly my name
was called, and I was riding toward the herd. Behind me, I heard a woman's
voice say, "Load the wagon and don't mind the mules!" Was she talking
As we passed the
judges, Sugar craned around and had a good look at them. She was filled with
suspicion. Apparently, my horse was confident. Once we were in the herd, I felt
better. We rode around and moved some cattle out in front of us. One particular
black cow looked fresh, head up and not out of breath. She stood and let us cut
her. The rest of the herd moved quietly away and behind us. I put my reining
hand down. The cow realized she was alone. She made a hard run to the right,
spun and went the other way. I felt that first magical hard break that a
cutting horse makes with a cow, the hind quarters sinking into the stop so that
the floor of the arena seems to rise sharply around you, and suddenly you're
going the other way. It was an exhilarating movement, akin to flight.
this cow correctly, with good hard stops, staying right with her, nose to nose.
Then we cut a wild motley-faced cow that nearly sent us home. I could feel
Sugar get a bit lost as the pace picked up. The cow didn't respect anything
Sugar did, and Sugar's confidence was eroding. She became unsure of the correct
way to do things and desperate as she tried to beat the cow to the stops. She
became much harder to ride.
We made the
second go-round by the skin of our teeth. I was going to have to make up a lot
of ground if I hoped to reach the semifinals. And I knew Sugar was rattled.
Larry Mahan, in a
tweed coat and cardigan sweater, arrived to watch the competition. A six-time
world-champion rodeo cowboy, he's now a good non-professional cutting-horse
rider. Mahan took on this sport with becoming modesty, given his credentials in
rodeo. When riding broncs or bulls, he says, "you sublimate everything in
order to react to what happens; you just kind of gas it for eight seconds. You
get to where you even divorce yourself from that guy out there making the ride.
But with cutting horses, you have to find a harmony with the horse. You have to
reflect that horse's energy, and he has to reflect yours. You have to be sharp.
You have to react. But the thing you have to have is the feel."
And the feel
could come from anywhere—your attitude, the demeanor of the animal, the smell
of the sweat on the horse's shoulders, the look in his eye, the electric
suddenness of his moves. You could never be sure who had that feel. It might
well be somebody's grandmother.