Yesterday Centuries before the conquistadors arrived in America, Spaniards used horses to herd cattle. But it was American cowboys, mounted on descendants of the conquistadors' horses, who turned herd work into art.
Buster Welch grew up in West Texas listening to tales of renowned cutting horses. "I remember when I was a little kid, they didn't have hardly any contests," says Welch, the all-time leading NCHA Futurity champion. "But they talked and bragged about cutting horses constantly. People didn't sell them then. That would be like selling your windmills; you just didn't sell your cutting horse.
Tom Saunders III, a fourth generation Texas cattleman and president of NCHA in 1949, reminisced in one of the first issues of the Cuttin Hoss Chatter about some of the great horses he had seen as a boy.
"There was an Art Waggoner in our remuda that hands from the Matadors, JJ's and X's called tops as a cutting horse. Nobody trained him or groomed him, nor did he ever know what the inside of a stall looked like. He was truly a natural and so particular about his ability to do it his own way, if you tried to cue or handle him too much, he'd unload you.
"He sensed his responsibility and showed it upon entering a herd by quickening his cat-like steps, just as though he were walking on eggs. Staying far enough back to counter every move an animal made, he could shuffle, weave and bob, duck, dodge, drop low with forelegs well apart, gather up and step sideways, head and turn back with the lightning quickness of a jackrabbit. If you didn't want to drag the toe of your boot when he came back through himself, you'd better raise it high and grab a piece of that elm."
Ranchers gather cattle to brand, castrate and vaccinate, as well as to sort them and ship them to market. Once a herd is rounded up-not an easy task in the rough and brushy country of the Southwest-mounted cowboys circle the herd to keep it contained on the roundup ground, while other riders hold the culled cattle in a separate group.
The boss is mounted on a cutting horse-the horse that the other cowboys would rather be riding-and he enters the herd quietly and deliberately, taking care not to disturb the cattle. If one animal bolts, the rest of the herd might follow. When an animal is selected, it is slowly driven out of the herd and to the "cuts."
If it tries to run back to the herd, the cutting horse heads it and turns it around. There was no official format for early cutting contests. Some were speed events where the riders cut as many calves from the herd as possible in a given amount of time. Other rules required riders to drive a cow into a small pen, or to cut a designated steer from the herd. The National Cutting Horse Association was organized by 13 ranchers and cowboys at the 1946 Fort Worth Livestock Stock Show & Rodeo. Their objective was to develop a standard format for cutting contests. In a little over 50 years, the organization has spread to all 50 states and 22 foreign countries.
Today Each contestant is allowed two and a-half minutes to cut at least two cows from the herd. The rider must bring at least one cow out from deep inside the herd during his run (performance). If he brings out a small group and waits for all but one to peel (go back to the herd), he has "cut for shape."
His other cuts may be chipped from the edge of the herd. Extra credit is given if the rider drives the cow he wants fromdeep inside the herd. The contestant is assisted by four riders of his choice. Two are designated as herd holders. They are positioned on either side of the herd to keep the cattle from drifting into the working area.
Two riders stay between the cow that is being worked and the judges' stands. These are the turnback riders; they turn the cow back to the contestant, if it tries to escape to the far end of the working area.
When the rider has clearly separated one cow from the herd, he must loosen his grip on the reins and allow the horse to have its head. The cow instinctively tries to return to the herd, but the horse must defend the herd and hold the cow.
Horses receive extra credit for their skill and style and the exertion used to keep the cow under control. The rider may decide when to stop working a cow, but he will be penalized if he quits when a cow is moving toward the horse. This is known as a "hot quit." The rider also incurs a penalty for picking up his reins before he quits a cow. A horse will be penalized if he loses a cow (the cow returns before the rider quits it.)
It's all about cattle Riders spend time watching the herd during the cattle change and mentally sorting the "good" cows from the "bad" ones. A good cow is intelligent, curious and alert. Although it wants to return to the herd, it will not bolt and run like a "bad" cow, but will try to find a "hole" just to one side of the horse for an escape route. The "good" horse will control a cow by matching its moves without being aggressive. If the cow runs, the horse must be quick and agile in order to head it.
Cutting demands extraordinary control on one hand, and lightning-quick action on the other. The smart and athletic American Quarter Horse has been bred for these qualities, as well as a love for the job, and about 96% of all horses competing in NCHA events are Registered American Quarter Horses, although Paints, Appaloosas, Thoroughbreds and Arabians can also be competitive. Judges score contestants on a scale of 60 to 80 points.
Five judges are required for the NCHA Futurity where the high score and the low score are eliminated and the three remaining scores are combined. Royal Fletch, the 2000 NCHA Open Futurity Champion, owned by the Royal Fletch Partnership, scored an event-record 229 points under her rider, Kathy Daughn.