I’ll never forget the first time I rode a cutting horse. After a short arena lesson on a champion cutting mare, where I learned how to sit and cue a cutting horse, the instructor had me ride into a pen of cows. She told me to pick a steer from the bunch, point the mare at that cow, drop the reins, and hold on. The mare worked that cow for an exhilarating 90 seconds until the instructor called for me to pick up the reins. When it was over, my heart was pounding. I felt like I’d just been on a colossal roller coaster ride.
Today, we ride cutting horses mostly for fun. But this exciting sport didn’t start out as a way to get a good rush while on horseback. In the 1800s, cutting a cow from the herd was an important and necessary job for cowhands out on the range.
To understand the historical importance of cutting, you need to know a bit about how cattle were managed on the range in the early days of the West. Back when cattle ranchers grazed their animals on open land, the only way to distinguish one ranch’s cattle from another was through a ranch brand, which had been applied to the hip of each cow. Cows from one ranch would often mingle with cattle from another during the summer and winter, and come spring and fall, cowhands had to separate those cattle and return them to their rightful herds.
This separation of cattle required special horses from in the ranch’s working string. The horses designated as cutters were the ones with a particular interest in cattle, along with a sense of how to move them. Since the horses used for ranching in the Old West were descended from Spanish horses, their propensity to work cattle made sense. They had inherited an ability to work cattle from their Spanish ancestors, who were bred for this purpose.
Horses that demonstrated the ability to gauge a cow’s moves and react with speed in controlling its movements were considered the most skilled horses in the remuda. They were highly prized among cowhands.
Early in the 20th, large cattle outfits were replaced by small farms and ranches, and cowhands began relying more on trucks and squeeze chutes to separate cattle. Cutting horses weren’t necessary anymore, but their skills were still admired by horsemen throughout the West.
In 1898, when cutting horses were still being used on the ranch, the first advertised cutting horse contest was held at the Cowboy Reunion event in Haskell, Tex. Thousands of people came from all over, many by wagon and horseback. Eleven riders competed for $150, and a 22-year-old cutting horse named Old Hub took home the prize.
In 1919, a cutting demonstration was held for spectators at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show rodeo in Forth Worth, Tex. The following year, cutting became a competitive event at that event.
Over the next couple of decades, cutting took off as a sport. But without a central governing organization, the rules and conditions varied from event to event.
In 1946, a group of cutting horse owners formed an association to govern the sport. Dubbed the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA), the group held its first show in Dublin, Tex., that year.
When the NCHA first began holding events, many of the competitive cutting horses were geldings of unknown parentage. But as the sport became more popular, large cattle outfits like the King Ranch and Triangle Ranch, which had been selectively breeding Quarter Horses to work cattle, became competitive in the cutting world. Today, these same bloodlines can be found in the best cutting horses.
Quarter Horses dominate the modern sport of cutting, and the American Quarter Horse Association sponsors cutting events at its shows. That said, other stock breeds have also shown great talent in the sport. Over the years, both Paints and Appaloosas have made a name for themselves in cutting. Both the American Paint Horse Association and the Appaloosa Horse Club offer cutting horse classes at their respective World Shows, and the Appaloosa breed even has its own cutting horse organization: the Appaloosa Cutting Horse Association.
NCHA shows are open to all stock breeds, and today the association has more than 15,000 members in 50 states and 20 countries. The group awards more than $9M is prize money each year, with more than 7,000 entrants participating annually in cutting events. What once was a way to manage cattle on the range has grown into a high-stakes sport that’s also a whole lot of fun.