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A cutting horse working a cow.
|Highest governing body||National Cutting Horse Association|
Cutting is an equestrian event in the western riding style where a horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a single animal away from a cattle herd and keep it away for a short period of time.
A cutting horse is an athletic and willing animal possessing an innate "cow sense" and ability to respond quickly and turn sharply that is trained to keep a cow from returning to the herd. The horses involved are typically American Quarter Horses, although many other stock horse breeds are also used.
In the event, the horse and rider select and separate a cow (typically a steer or heifer) out of a small group. The cow then tries to return to its herd; the rider loosens the reins ("puts his hand down" in the parlance) and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the cow separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A contestant has 2 ½ minutes to show the horse; typically three cows are cut during a run, although working only two cows is acceptable. A judge awards points to the cutter based on a scale that ranges from 60 to 80, with 70 being considered average.
As the cow turns, the horse is to draw back over its hocks and then turn with the cow. The rider is centered over the horse keeping his or her eyes focused on the cow’s neck so as to anticipate the cow’s next move. The horse’s shoulders during a run are parallel with that of the cow’s. The team is judged on how the horse moves in relation to the cow. leg aids may be used to steady a horse and keep them from falling in on the cow or drifting towards the herd throughout a run.
The sport originated from cattle ranches in the American West, where it was the cutting horse's job to separate cattle from the herd for vaccinating, castrating, and sorting. Eventually competitions arose between the best cutting horses and riders in the area. In 1898 the first cutting horse competition was held in Haskell, Texas. With the growth of such cutting horse contests, a group of owners decided to form an organization to establish a universal set of rules and regulations. As a result, in 1946 the National Cutting Horse Association was founded.
Today, cutting is a fast-growing equine sport. In 2006, the contestants at the United States NCHA Futurity competed for more than $3.7 million—over a hundred times the offering of the first year. Total purses at NCHA-approved shows alone now exceed $39 million annually. Additional prize money is distributed at Australian Cutting Horse Association, American Cutting Horse Association, single-breed shows, European and Canadian events.
Any breed of horse may compete, although the American Quarter Horse is most commonly used. Regardless of breed, the horse needs to anticipate the actions of the cow and keep it from turning back into the herd.
A judge scores a performance on a number of factors; points are added (or subtracted) for courage, eye appeal, herd work, controlling the cow, degree of difficulty, time worked, and loose reins. A rider can be disqualified for using illegal equipment, leaving the working area before the time limit is reached, and for inhumane treatment of the horse. A horse and rider team is penalized if forced off a cow, if the horse charges a cow, excessive herdholder help, and judges either add or take away points based on the horse and rider's performance throughout their run.
A western saddle is required. A breast collar and back cinch are optional. A bridle is also required with varying options for bits and curb chains as long as they meet competition guidelines. A tiedown is prohibited. A saddle pad used under the saddle. Splint boots and back or skid boots are recommended for the horse’s leg protection during competition. Chaps are not required but are recommended, and commonly used in competition.
Competition divisions common in cutting are:
- Professional: Anyone who has received payment for training, riding, or showing in any equine discipline, unless granted a change of status.
- Non-professional: May not train horses in any equine discipline. The horse must be fully owned by the non-professional, a spouse, or minor child.
- Amateur: A rider with lifetime earnings less than $50,000 in cutting competition. They may not work on a horse training facility, nor can they be married to a professional trainer.
- Youth: Riders must be 18 years old or younger to compete as a youth.
A variety of breeds of cattle can be used for cutting as long as they are sensitive and herd bound. Before a run riders will watch other riders to see how cattle react and perform for other riders and their horses. When cutting a cow out of the herd some riders use characteristics or markings to help identify an individual animal. A rider who is able to differentiate between cattle offers the horse the best opportunity to have a good run. The cow selected by a rider needs to challenge but not overwhelm the horse and result in losing the cow. 
- Area Work-Offs: The original name for the NCHA National Championships.
- Back fence: An area of the fence behind the cattle. A horse is penalized 3 points each time the cow being worked stops or turns within 3 feet of the back fence.
- Baldy: a cow with a large white marking or "bonnet" covering the face.
- Blow up: When a horse or cow panics.
- Brindle: A cow with a mottled coat color.
- Cheat: A horse that looks for an easy way out of working correctly.
- Collected: A horse that is balanced under the rider so that it can quickly respond to the moves of a cow.
- Commit: Show intention to work a specific cow by looking at it and stepping towards it.
- Cut for shape: When a rider selects a cow on the edge of the herd rather than riding through the herd and driving a cow out.
- Deep cut: Not to pick a cow from the edge of the herd. Under NCHA rules, the cutter must make at least one deep cut into the herd.
- Draw cattle: A horse’s ability to make cows look at them and come towards them.
- Drop on a cow: Crouching posture of the horse when a cow has been cut and separated and the rider drops his rein hand on the horse’s neck.
- Dry work: Basic cutting horse training done without the use of cattle also known as flatwork.
- Frosted: a cow with white markings on the tips of the ears.
- Heading a cow: Occurs when a rider places a horse in front of a cow in order to stop the cow or to force it to change directions.
- Herd holder: One of two riders positioned on each side of the herd to help the cutter make his cut and to keep the herd grouped while the cutter works. They help to control the majority of the cattle so the rider can focus on the single cow they are trying to separate from the herd.
- Mott: A cow with multiple colors on the face.
- Sweep: The horse sits back on its rear end and moves its front end, front legs extended, with a cow.
The National Cutting Horse Association governs most cutting horse competition in the United States. The American Cutting Horse Association is the US affiliate, and in 1972 a branch of the NCHA was formed in Australia. The showcase of Australian cutting is the NCHA Futurity which is held every May or June at the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre (AELEC), Tamworth, New South Wales. During the 36th cutting futurity held in 2009 A$540,000 in prize money was distributed during the 11 days of competition.
- Dunning, Al; Jennifer, Paulson (December 2011). "Cirlce Up!". Horse & Rider L (12): 32–33.
- "In the beginning there was the horse...". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 3/29/2012.
- Kirkwood, Bill. "Cutting Basics". AMERICA'S HQRSE DAILY. World Press. Retrieved 2/15/2012.
- "2012 Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 3/29/2012.
- "NCHA-Getting Started". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 3/29/2012.
- "Cutter's Glossary". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 3/29/2012.
- Shulte, Barbara. "A Big Part of Riding a Cutting Horse is Cow Identification". BarbaraShulte. Retrieved 3/29/2012.
- "36th futurity a smooth ride". Northern Daily Leader. 11 June 2009. p. 27.