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 the herd, the horse blocks the cow’s path. With fast turns and hard stops, he mirrors every move the cow makes. His goal is to outmaneuver the cow into giving up and standing still.

The horse moves just enough to control the cow. His movements appear effortless as he works on his own, with no apparent guidance from the rider. Good riders are an asset, as with leg and seat they guide the horse. In the ultimate showdown, the cutting horse dares the bovine competitor to run, but keeps it in a standoff.

To keep up with the cow, he makes huge physical efforts. Jerry Black, DVM, a practitioner and cutting horse rider from Oakdale, Calif., explains that while matching the cow’s changes of direction, "The cutting horse initiates a deep stop and begins a 180-degree turn while he’s stopping. He turns and pushes forward at the same time, with a tremendous amount of power."

The horse might pivot on an inside hind foot that’s firmly planted during the rapid motion of the pirouette. Black points out that the inside leg will be stationary, but the horse has to push out of the turn with the outside leg, which does the hard work. The outside leg takes the brunt of the force of propulsion out of the stop.

Cutting horses work in deep footing, possibly the deepest cushion of any equine discipline. "It’s because of the amount of push the horse does in the stop," Black explains. "If he didn’t have deep footing, he’d slide all over. He has to maintain the ground."

Black points out that often the entire back portion of the horse’s hind cannon and hock are in the ground. The deep footing of the arena surface also provides a buffer, preventing injury from the horse scraping his legs in the dirt.

Built to Cut

To excel in cutting, a horse must have the speed and strength to stop hard. Stopping and turning require natural ability through appropriate conformation.

The cutting horse has to work low to the ground, so he can’t be built with "downhill" conformation. The horse has to drop his hip, with sufficient strength in his back, loin, hip, and stifle to stop hard. His hindquarters move forward underneath his body as he absorbs his weight and gathers himself for a turn. The weight of the rider shifts back in the stop toward the loin and hip as the horse gathers himself.

"If the hip is higher than the withers, there’s a lot of pressure placed on the loin during the stop," Black says. "The horse can’t get as good a set into the stop, or get as deep into the stop."

Andrew Currie, VMD, of Houston, Texas, describes desirable hindquarters for a good stop. "This includes a short loin and a good tail set, extensive stifle muscle, the often neglected inside gaskin muscle, low hocks, and good bone. This should be put together in a gentle curve to the hind leg that sets the feet just under the butt, but not so they are sickle-hocked." Important muscling includes the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris low and into the gaskin.

"You want a relatively short back," Black says. "The distance from withers to croup is relatively short, so the horse can dorsiflex (bend his back upward and haunches downward) and sustain that dorsal flexion in the stop."

Currie notes that a horse with a long croup might not have ideal angulation in the hock. "Many hard-stopping performance horses are shorter in the croup (so-called apple-butted) and straighter in the hock joint."

Black makes an important point. "These horses have to have really deep sets in the musculature of the hind leg, gaskin, and thigh. That affects not only the ability to get the hindquarters up underneath them to stop, but they have to have enough musculature to initiate the push out of the stops. You also want that lower set of hock to ground, which means a shorter cannon bone, both fore limb and hind limb."

Black adds, "Also unique to the cutting horse is that they need to have extremely good flexibility to the neck. You don’t look for that muscular neck, but a little longer, thinner neck, with a cleaner throatlatch. The arc of the neck initiates the turn and allows the horse to be athletic in front of the cow."

Cow Sense

Cutting horses are bred to work cattle. These horses play mind games with the cows they meet, dominating them through implied threats.

The ideal cutting horse shows an instinctive reaction to a cow’s movement. He naturally displays a desire to drive forward and turn the cow, and the athletic ability to maintain mastery. He has the will to challenge a cow, along with an affinity for matching wits with it.

Although many breeds are trained for the sport, Quarter Horses dominate open competition. Paints, Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, and Arabians can compete in breed shows or in all-breed events.

Training develops the horse’s innate urge to hold a cow in place, starting with a 2-year-old. The young horse has about 18 months of physical and mental preparation before he first competes.

Cow sense means that the horse instinctively reacts to a cow and anticipates what it will do next. Trying to figure out its next move, he stays with the cow and matches his strides to the cow’s. If the cow runs, he runs. If the cow "sulls," or refuses to move, the horse waits for the cow to move so he can pounce. He reads the cow’s body language, fakes when it fakes, and moves when it moves. Wherever the cow tries to go, he counters the action and gets there first.

The horse quits only when he has the cow under control, or the rider signals to stop by picking up the reins. If the cow manages to return to the herd without the horse being stopped by the rider, the cow wins.

Horses bred to cut enjoy the sport. Black notes that horses can be "cow fresh," or overly enthusiastic about taking on a cow.

"If a horse isn’t warmed up completely before he’s shown, he gets so excited in front of a cow, that he’s just leaping and jumping everywhere." He compares the cutting horse to a good hunting dog, who also follows his instincts to pursue his quarry.

Although the competition emphasis is on futurity horses, the older horse is in great demand by younger riders, and amateur cutters. "Cutting is not a punishing sport," Black says. "Horses well into their teens can still be competing."

Cutting Pressures

Cattle events do, however, stress a horse, as he must put forth maximum effort to block the escape of a cow. The horse has to win over every cow he cuts, and in competition he cuts two or three different cows in a 2 1/2-minute period. Owners bring a horse to fitness through walking, trotting, and loping, developing his abdominal muscles so he can round his back in the stop.

Fitness is also a big focus just before an event–warm-up is key. Trainers warm up horses for quite a while prior to a cutting event–as much as two hours of jogging and loping while waiting for their number to be called.

Along with fitness, leg protection is essential. Cutting horses wear protective boots on all four legs. Splint boots, combination skid and splint boots, or sports medicine boots guard the horse from overreaching in turns and burning the fetlocks in the stop. Boots also provide some support.

In the cutting horse, unsoundness appears mostly in hocks and stifles. "The cutting horse’s stop is not complete when he initiates the turn and starts to drive out to maintain his position to the cow," says Black. "It’s probably one of the most athletic endeavors a horse does. That’s why he is subject to injuries of the hind limbs." However, Black adds that most competitors do not suffer from unsoundness.

"Cutting horses have a higher incidence of hind leg to foreleg lameness when compared to equines that work at speed," says H.A. "Bud" Smith, DVM, of Bren-ham, Texas. "The enormous torque placed on the hind limbs generated by sudden stops and violent turns predisposes these horses to lameness of the hind limb."

Smith names bilateral distal tarsitis as very common in the cutting horse, while young horses develop synovitis in the hocks. "In the older horse, degenerative joint disease is a common cause of distal tarsal discomfort.

"Cutting horses have two kinds of hocks–those that hurt, and those that are about to hurt," Smith continues. " Cases of tarsitis are managed with a combination of rest, intra-articular anti-inflammatories and systemic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories."

The cutting horse has to "hold the ground" when he stops, and a horse in pain doesn’t crouch as low as he can. He might not then be able to explode into the turn as quickly, and can lose the cow by not being in position.

Smith notes that unsoundness might not be apparent except when the horse performs in the arena. The practitioner might not be able to detect lameness by observing a horse in-hand or on the longe line. He describes signs of affected turns and stops. "Sore stifles can cause a horse not to stop or to stop on his front end, making him hard to ride. Horses with discomfort in either hocks or stifles will round their turns."

Black observes that the stress from pushing out of the stop shows up in a horse’s performance. "Often we find that if a horse doesn’t do well coming out of a turn to the left, it will be the right hind leg that’s bothering him."

Foreleg lameness isn’t as common in cutting horses. Smith says that pain in the forelegs doesn’t seem to affect a cutter’s performance as much as the same intensity of pain in a hind leg. He explains, "Just about all described foreleg problems also occur in cutting horses, but I see very little instance of the catastrophic fetlock and flexor tendon injuries common to speed horses."

He mentions feet as a limiting factor. "Our breed selection has resulted in a horse with a smaller than optimum size of foot. As these small feet are shod close behind, the heels will quickly run under." In consequence, the horse can develop problems in the lower limb joints, such as suspensory desmitis (sprain of the suspensory ligament).

About back problems, Smith says, "Most of the back pain I see in cutting horses is secondary to the rider, tack, or some pre-existing hind leg lameness. It will improve once the cause is removed."

Like other equine athletes, cutting horses benefit from newer health care products. "Thanks to the new generation of health aids and pharmaceuticals, we are able to put these horses on maintenance programs to help prevent injuries," Black says. "We believe that some newer products have tremendous benefit for the 3-year-old futurity horse. Some of the newer nutraceutical products can have the same beneficial effects to protect joints."

Clay Stubbs, DVM, Johnson City, Texas, treats cutting horses in his practice. He specializes in equine dentistry and cites oral pain as a detriment to the well-trained horse. "The cutting horse has to twist, turn, stop, start, and lunge forward. He sticks his nose out when he lunges, and there’s a lot of movement, a lot of flexion. He can’t help but move his tongue around his teeth, especially at the base of the tongue."

Stubbs has noticed that preparing the back teeth of performance horses– especially removing hooks on the third molars–makes a noticeable difference in the horse’s attitude. "If a horse at one time performed in the arena, and he doesn’t now, it’s not always hock pain that causes him to not perform up to his potential. We have fixed horses by fixing their teeth."

For that smooth run under the judge’s eye, the cutting horse displays style and control. He displays enthusiasm and intensity as each cow "hooks up" with him. Through mental power and athletic fitness, he perpetuates the ancient conflict between horse and cow.