One on one, horse meets heifer. The cutting horse matches wits with a cow, and a champion maintains 100 percent control of the wily critter.

Like reining, cutting is a sport that developed on the ranch. Cowhands valued the cutting horse as a mount that could separate individual animals from the herd. In the show arena today, cutting is a drama unique to equestrian competition. Rules allow the rider a period of 2 1/2 minutes to demonstrate the skill of the horse.

The cutting horse’s dance of mastery over a cow is a beautiful thing to watch, but hard on the horse’s body.

The rider tells the horse which cow to separate from the herd, then he drops the reins. Working on completely loose reins, the horse takes control of the cow the rider has picked. The horse has to be smart and athletically able enough to keep the cow in the middle of the pen, away from the herd. The horse defeats the cow’s every attempt to rejoin the herd, until the rider picks up the reins to signal "Quit this cow." The horse then repeats the action with one or two more cows, as time permits.

The sport’s premier event is the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) World Championship Futurity, held before Christmas in Fort Worth, Texas. Only 3-year-olds may enter, and they may not have competed before. The NCHA Futurity offers a purse of over $2 million, with more than 1,000 horses competing.

Fancy Footwork

Cutting tests the horse’s agility beginning with the cutting horse walking quietly through the herd and maneuvering a single animal away from the others. When the cow tries to get away, back to t