A cutting horse working a cow
|Clubs||National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA)|
|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|
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 1⁄2 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. Cutting horses that are well-trained and properly conditioned for competition are athletes with skills honed to respond instantaneously, matching a 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 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. American Quarter Horses and other horse breeds with Quarter Horse ancestry, such as American Paint Horses are the most popular choices for the sport, although other breeds with stock horse type are also used, particularly in breed-specific competition.
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. 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, 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. 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.
The National Cutting Horse Association is the primary organization that governs open cutting competitions, and the organization's rules are generally adopted by other organizations sponsoring cutting at competitions not governed by the NCHA. Cutting events hosted by the National Cutting Horse Association are open to all registered and non-registered horses regardless of breed, although Quarter Horses are most commonly used. Breed associations may host competition limited to a single breed.
Cutting events consist of individual runs in each class within their respective divisions. Each contestant is allowed 2½ minutes to show their horse to a panel of judges. A contestant is assisted by four helpers of their choice: 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. 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 cut has been made and the selected calf has been driven clear of the herd, the contestant commits the horse to that cow by dropping his rein hand to the horse's neck which allows for more slack in the reins and gives the horse its head. At that point it is almost entirely up to the horse to prevent the calf from returning to the herd; a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. Judges will score a run on a scale from 60 to 80, with 70 being an average score. A performance is judged on a number of factors in which points are added or subtracted.:100-135
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.
Some variables for earning credit include:
- level of confidence when entering the herd with minimal disturbance, and making a clean cut by setting up a cow in the middle of the working area;
- level of skill and the degree of difficulty involved in containing a cow as close to the center of the working area as possible, all on a loose rein without disturbing the herd;
- show of courage when handling difficult situations, such as holding a cow that pushes exceptionally hard to return to the herd;
- overall eye appeal of the work;
Some penalties that subtract from a score:
- causing noticeable disturbance to the herd upon entering or during the work;
- failure to make a deep cut;
- using the fence to turn a cow (back fence);
- quitting a cow while it is facing the horse and still in motion (illegal quit or hot quit);
- horse quitting a cow;
- allowing a cow to get back to the herd;
- reining, cueing or positioning the horse during a work;
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 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, 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-pro: May not train cutting horses. 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.
Among the events drawing the most entrants are limited aged events which offer large purses and added money in classes that offer competitors a chance to win hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly millions.
Cutting's Triple Crown begins with the NCHA Futurity, an event limited to 3 year old horses who have not previously been shown. Following the Futurity is the NCHA Super Stakes, and 4 year old NCHA Derby, usually held in conjunction with the Summer Spectacular including the 5 and 6 year old NCHA classic/challenge. There are also NCHA affiliates that host limited aged events that immediately follow the NCHA Futurity, such as the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Futurity (PCCHA Futurity) held in Paso Robles, CA., and the Augusta Futurity held in Augusta, Georgia. Most aged events also offer classes with lifetime earning limits on the rider, including limited amateur and limited nonpro classes.
The NCHA also promotes weekend and circuit cutting events that are hosted by an NCHA affiliate or other entity. In order to obtain approval from the NCHA, the classes must meet all NCHA standing rule requirements before they can bear the title NCHA Open Championship Cutting classes, and must have an added purse of at least $200.00 per day in addition to other requirements.:19
- 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. They offer affiliate designation to clubs and organizations that meet NCHA affiliate guidelines. In 2015, there were 132 NCHA affiliates world wide including the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.
NCHA-Australia is one such affiliate with 53 of its own designated affiliates throughout Australia. They host over 200 cutting horse competitions in Brisbane, Melbourne and at Sydney Royals. They also sponsor a 3 yr. old cutting futurity in May or June each year at the Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre (AELEC), Tamworth, New South Wales.
The American Cutting Horse Association (ACHA) is an independent cutting horse association with its own established rules and regulations. They sponsor an annual aged event championship show in September which includes divisions for 3 yr. old, 4 yr. old, and 5 & 6 yr. old cutting horses. As of year-end 2015, the ACHA was not recognized as an NCHA affiliate,  and has four affiliates of its own, including the South West Texas Cutting Horse Association, Belton, Texas, the South Texas Cutting Horse Association, Brenham, Texas, the American Western Sports Cutting Horse Association, Sulpher Springs, Texas, and the American Oklahoma Cutting Horse Association, Corn, Oklahoma.
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