Cutting (sport)

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Cutting horse competition.jpg
A cutting horse working a cow
Clubs National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA)
Type Western riding
Equipment Western saddle; bridle with bit, or hackamore; split reins; optional chaps and spurs
Venue National Cutting Horse Association events, single-breed horse shows, American Cutting Horse Association events, annual stock shows and rodeos
Young cutting horse at training clinic
Young cutting horse in aged event competition

Cutting is a western-style equestrian competition in which a horse and rider work as a team before a judge or panel of judges to demonstrate the horse's athleticism and ability to handle cattle during a 2 12 minute performance, called a "run." Each contestant is assisted by four helpers: two are designated as turnback help to keep cattle from running off to the back of the arena, and the other two are designated as herd holders to keep the cattle bunched together and prevent potential strays from escaping into the work area. Cutting cattle are typically young steers and heifers that customarily range in size from 400 to 650 lb (180 to 290 kg). They are of Angus or Hereford lineage or possibly a mix of crossbred beef cattle with Charolais or Brahman lineage.

A contestant is required to make at least two cuts from the herd, one of which must be a cut from deep inside the herd while the other(s) can be peeled from the edges. Once the selected cow has been driven clear of the herd, the contestant commits the horse by dropping the rein hand to feed slack and give the horse its head. At that point, it is almost entirely up to the horse (with the exception of leg cues from the rider) to prevent the cow from returning to the herd; a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. Judges score a run on a scale from 60 to 80, with 70 being an average score.

Cutting is a sport born of necessity and dates back to a time when ranchers in the American West hired cowboys to work and sort through herds of cattle out on the open range, separating those in need of branding or doctoring. From the open range to the indoor arena, cutting has grown into a widely recognized sport with sanctioned events, some of which offer added monies and awards comprising million dollar purses. Cutting horse competition is primarily governed by the rules and regulations established by the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) located in Fort Worth, Texas. There are also NCHA affiliates in Australia and Europe. However, there are some cutting events that are neither sponsored by nor sanctioned by the NCHA which may be governed by a slightly different set of rules, such as cutting events sanctioned by the American Cutting Horse Association, a separate entity not affiliated with the NCHA, or those limited to a single horse breed and sanctioned by a breed association.


A cutting horse possesses an innate ability to anticipate or read a cow's intended moves; an ability commonly referred to as having cow sense or cow smarts.[1] Cutting horses that are well-trained and properly conditioned for competition are exceptional athletes with skills that have been honed to the degree the horse is able to respond instantaneously, matching the cow's every move, head to head, in order to contain it. The harder a cow tries to get back the herd, the more skill, athleticism and cow sense are required of the horse. The best equine athletes can stop hard and turn sharply, almost synchronously as the cow turns; all in an effort to keep the cow from returning to the herd. A common analogy is a basketball point guard holding off a defender.[2] American Quarter Horses and a few other horse breeds with Quarter Horse ancestry, such as Paints and Palominos, are the most popular choices for the sport of cutting, although other stock horse types are also used.


The sport evolved from tasks performed by horses on cattle ranches in the American West; born of necessity when ranch horses worked herds of cattle and separate specific individuals for branding, and various treatments such as vaccinating, castrating and worming. Local cutting competitions were held among ranchers and cowboys to earn bragging rights for having the best cutting horse.[3] In 1898, the first cutting horse competition was held in Haskell, Texas. On March 14, 1908, the Old North Side Coliseum, now known as the Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas,[4] hosted the first indoor cutting horse contest which grew into the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show. In 1918, the Fort Worth Stock Show hosted the world's first indoor rodeo, also making it the first time a cutting horse exhibition was held in connection with a rodeo.[3] With the growth of cutting horse contests, a group of cutting horse owners decided it was time to establish a universal set of rules and regulations, and in 1946 the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) was founded.[3][5]


The goal of cutting is to remove a cow from its herd and prevent it from returning.

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.[6]

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.[7]

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 is 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,[8] and commonly used in competition.

Competition divisions common in cutting are:[9]

  • 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.


See also: Cattle

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.[10]


  • 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.[10]
  • Blow up: When a horse or cow panics.
  • Brindle: A cow with a mottled coat color.[10]
  • 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.[10]
  • 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.[10]
  • Sweep: The horse sits back on its rear end and moves its front end, front legs extended, with a cow.[9]


The National Cutting Horse Association governs most cutting horse competition in the United States. The American Cutting Horse Association is the US affiliate,[citation needed] 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.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ross Hecox. "6 Keys to Cow Smarts". Horsemanship. Western Horseman. Retrieved November 7, 2015. 
  2. ^ Charles McGrath (October 20, 2010). "An Author Still Writing His Way Through Big Sky Country". Books. International New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c "Cutting, Roping, and Combined Training". Agriscience and Natural Resources Education Curriculum. Mississippi State University. Retrieved November 7, 2015. 
  4. ^ "The Livestock Exchange Building became known as "The Wall Street of the West"". Fort Worth Stockyards. Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District. Retrieved November 7, 2015. 
  5. ^ "In the beginning there was the horse...". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  6. ^ Kirkwood, Bill. "Cutting Basics". AMERICA'S HQRSE DAILY. World Press. Retrieved 2012-02-15. 
  7. ^ "2012 Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations" (PDF). National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  8. ^ "NCHA-Getting Started". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  9. ^ a b "Cutter's Glossary". National Cutting Horse Association. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Shulte, Barbara. "A Big Part of Riding a Cutting Horse is Cow Identification". BarbaraShulte. Retrieved 2012-03-29. 
  11. ^ "36th futurity a smooth ride". Northern Daily Leader. 11 June 2009. p. 27. 

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