- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Years ago, I took a 12-year-old broodmare that I owned to a cutting-horse clinic in Livingston, Mont. She was out of shape, and I didn't know what to expect. But I knew she had once been a cutting horse. When my turn came, I rode her into the herd of cattle that milled at the end of the arena.
All I had to do was cut one cow from the herd. But each one I tried slipped past me. Already the mare had begun to change beneath me. I felt her heightened alertness, a flow of new energy. The reins with which I guided her required a lighter and lighter touch. Finally, only one cow stood in front of us. The mare's attention was riveted, and I no longer needed the reins at all.
When the cow tried to get back to the herd, I knew I would ride cutting horses for the rest of my life. With liquid quickness, the mare countered every move that the cow made. Riding her on a slack rein gave me a sense of controlled free-fall. Centered between the ears of my horse as if in the sights of a rifle, the cow faked and dodged. Much of the time I didn't know where I was or where the cow was, and I was certainly no help to the horse. But by the time I picked up the reins to stop, I was addicted to the thrilling shared movement of cutting, sometimes close to violence, which was well beyond what the human body could ever discover on its own.
In ranch work, the cutting horse is used to sort out unproductive cows from the herd, to separate bulls, to replace heifers and to bring out sick or injured cattle for treatment. The herd instinct of cattle is tremendously strong, and to drive out an individual cow and hold her against this tidal force, a horse must act with knowledge, physical skill and precision. Otherwise, the cow escapes and returns to a thoroughly upset herd.
The day of the cutting horse as a common ranch tool is waning, and the training and use of cutting horses has become largely a sporting proposition. To deny this would be like claiming your old bird dog was just another food-gathering device you maintained to keep your kitchen humming. Still, there is beauty and grace in the cutting horse, as well as a connection to a world older than we are. Amazingly, cutting horses can be found in all states except Alaska, and competitions sanctioned by the National Cutting Horse Association are held in 44 states.
As a sport, cutting has a low entry level. Anyone who is reasonably comfortable riding can get on a cutting horse, hang on tight to the saddle horn and feel the satisfaction and excitement of sitting astride a trained cow horse. But the journey to competence can be very long, and the frustration can be extreme. You must learn to ride in a way that does not drag at the motion of a horse. The body language between you and the horse must be bright and clear. A polished cutter sits in the middle of the saddle, holding the saddle horn but not pushing on it, never slinging his weight or dropping a shoulder into the turns. This quiet, eye-of-the-storm riding style is not easily achieved on the back of a sudden-moving, hall-ton athlete. But to violate this style takes the horse's mind off his work and increases his vulnerability to the movements of the cow.
Cutting begins and ends with horses—the minds, bodies and souls of horses. You have to have a deep love of horses to endure the training. If you don't sense a kind of magic watching a horse take two steps or put his nose under water or switch flies, there's no real point. Cow-horse people sometimes can't tell their horses from themselves. You either learn to look at the world through the eyes of a horse or you quit cutting.
I bought a bay filly named Sugar O Lynn in Alabama, and she was broken to ride by a good hand there and sent to my ranch in McLeod, Mont., in the spring of 1988, at the age of two. I wanted to train her myself. My wife, Laurie, and I compete in Montana on our mature or "open" cutting horses, usually six years or older. Competing on young horses, which are comparatively inexperienced and volatile, is quite different, and we had never done it successfully. Laurie had her own filly, April, wisely entrusted to Sam Shepard, a talented trainer in Hartford, Ala.
I began to ride Sugar out in the country and tried to get her to be quiet and serious. She was good-hearted but wound fairly tight, would jump back from water and strange shapes. You wanted to have a deep scat on her if you were taking her on a long ride by yourself. While galloping she might jump sideways at the sight of a crumpled gum wrapper.
I started her in cattle work, and she came right along, though she worried about cows and sometimes kicked at them when I rode her in the herd. By fall, I could guide her to sort a cow from the herd and then drop the reins for a few turns and let Sugar work on her own. She was already a confident horse. In fact, it often surprised me how she faced the unknown with confidence.