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HorseShowCentral > Riding Styles & Disciplines > Cutting Horse

Cutting Horse - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Cutting horse and rider blocking the cowfrom the herd during competition. Cutting Horse Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

In the discipline of cutting, the cutting horse is meticulously trained to work on his own in a duel of instincts. His opponent is the cow, and the horse must anticipate every move the cow wants to make, then block the cow with his own movements, as quick, sure and deft as any high-star athlete.

Cattle are dedicated herd animals and feel safe only when they are part of the herd, which means being in the herd, and they will do absolutely all they can do to stay in the herd. The horse’s job is to keep the cow away from the herd


Throughout history, the cutting horse was always highly-prized at cow ranches everywhere, and usually spared for that kind of job. From occasional friendly contests to see whose horse was best, this equestrian sport discipline was developed, which draws loads of spectators and has grown to be an industry in itself, with many dedicated breeders of generations of proven cow horses. This sport awards prize monies unheard of in other events, especially in the aged events, the futurities and the superstakes and derbies.

Dominating this fascinating sport is the American Quarter Horse, which was especially bred for the job for many decades and is without equal as a cutting horse. The fact that American Paint Horses have won major events as well does not disprove this, as they are entirely based on Quarter Horse breeding.


The start of a cutting horse class finds cattle gathered (settled) at one end of the ring - calm, comfortable and relaxed where they are. The cutter enters the ring, with four helpers, two of which are so-called corner men who keep the cattle from spreading to the sides; they also help the cutter bring out a group and make his cut. The two others are called turnback men and are keeping a cow that is being worked from bolting to the far end of the ring, pushing that cow back to the cutter so his horse can show to the best of his ability.

The cutting horse continually blocks the cow from returning to her pals. When she finds she is not able to return to the herd, she will try to break in the opposite direction to escape the pressure. The turnback riders are there to prevent that, but their job is also to gauge the pressure on the cow when turning her back towards the herd, according to the ability of the performing horse.

The cutter has 2.5 minutes to show his stuff. He may peel off a cow from the fringes of the herd, but must show at least one so-called deep cut, taking his cutting horse deep into the herd and bringing out the cow he wants to work. He must do that without disturbing the herd. To make his cut (separate a cow and keep her from returning to the herd), he normally brings out a bunch of cows, lets them slowly break back to the herd, until finally there is only the one left he chose to work, preferably in the middle of the pen.

Up to this point, the rider may use his reins to steer his horse, but must now drop his reins, letting the horse work on his own. A good cutting horse will immediately be electrified and watch that cow intensely, gathering himself to be able to explode in either direction, usually lowering his head to be at the same level with the cow. The cow is eye to eye with the horse and may pause for an instant, but then the game, the duel of instincts begins. Time and again, the cow tries to return to the herd, only to be stopped repeatedly by the horse and kept isolated. The cows’s great motivation in life, her herd instinct, makes her try to return and launching attempt after attempt to move around the cutting horse. When the cow moves or swerves, etc., the horse is there to block her, and mirrors her every move

During all this, the rider holds the reins in one hand, but they are slack. He must not use the reins to direct the horse, and every time he might pick up his rein hand ever so slightly will result in a 1-point penalty, regardless whether the reins became taut or not.

With his other hand the rider braces himself on the saddle horn, and he will push against it or pull on it according to the horse’s spectacular moves, as the cutting horse at work turns and twists and moves however necessary to block that cow.

A rider may use his legs and spurs to help his horse, as long as he does not touch the horse in front of the cinch, but must not use his reins, or even appear like he did. He also must not try to help or influence his horse by leaning in the direction he anticipates the cow to move.


It is possible to quit working a cow that the cutter considers a poor one, one that is too wild, or too lazy, but the rider of a cutting horse is only allowed to quit a cow if she is either standing still on all four feet, or is turned away from him. In this situation the turnback men come in as helpers, too, offering an opening to a cow that proved to be an undesirable one, so she will turn away from the cutter.

The cutter may then go back to the herd to get himself a new cow out to work. There is no limit as to the number of cows he may work, and no minimum, although it would certainly be asking for trouble if he made his cutting horse work only one cow for the entire 2.5 minutes.


Plus points are given for extraordinary work in the center of the arena, when the cow jumps left and right there and the horse outsmarts and outmaneuvers her every time. Should the cow get to the back fence (to the left and right of the herd) that would be a penalty.

The heaviest penalty of 5 points is incurred if the cow makes it clear back to the herd, running by the horse. But a back fence, losing a cow, picking up on the reins are not the only penalties the cutting horse can incur. Whenever the horse is late following a move of the cow - without actually losing her - it is called a loss of working advantage and is penalized one point. Other penalties are charged for biting or kicking the cow, failing to isolate a single cow, shouting at a cow, and in other instances too numerous to be mentioned here.

Judges add or subtract from the seventy points each competitor has at the get go. A horse that has real cow sense, that takes an interest in the work and faces the cow eagerly, that has developed true cutting horse mental skills to out-think the cow and anticipate moves, is the ideal horse. But such a horse must also have incredible athletic abilities. To cut a tough cow is one of the most strenuous activity in equine sports, requiring a horse to be extremely physical.

While a roping horse should follow the cow, and a reined cow horse controls and dominates the cow in a different way, the cutter needs to block and fall back. An unschooled or poorly schooled horse tends to get closer and closer to the cow while working it, which is a fault (leaking). Working up too close can actually give a cow a better chance to slip past the horse. The cutter’s horse needs to learn to stop and wait for the cow to bring the action to him, then suck back to get a better working angle.


Although the best horses in this sport have what is referred to as cow sense , an inherited interest in this type of work, they still need a lot of knowledgeable training. Balance, athletic moves, quick stops, turns on the hind legs, calmness in the herd, smooth moves on a lose rein, all define the good and highly competitive cutting horse, but the inborn cow sense sharpened to an effective tool is the high point.

On a working ranch, cowboys must separate cattle from time to time, or occasionally separate out one cow, and this requirement in ranch work is where the cutting skills of a horse first became essential. The western horse has a long legacy as a stock horse and this is probably how the instinctive cow sense eventually became innate in some bloodlines. When a horse really ducks and dodges with a passion while heading a cow, you can be sure that the horse has apart from his training - an innate cutting horse nature.

A horse that turns on his front end won’t be able to hold testy cattle, he must be taught to pivot on his hind quarters. A good set of withers is important too, because no matter how tight you cinch the saddle, if the horse doesn t have good withers the saddle will shift during all the abrupt movements. Good withers make life easier on both horse and rider. The horse’s legs also take a pounding through the extreme movements, so it is important that the horse is structurally sound. Basically, athletic ability, cow sense, and sound conformation are all needed for a good cutting horse.

A competent trainer/rider is essential to success, although it is true that during the performance the cutter’s horse does it on his own. Cutters do not have to have skills normally associated with riding, but must know the rules, must have control of their rein hand not to use it, must be able to stay on board, but most of all, must know cattle. Picking the right cow is a great part of success in cutting, so is to know when to quit a cow. Just as the cutting horse has learned to anticipate the movements of a cow -- to read a cow it is called -- so must the rider be able to read a cow. A competent cutter can do a decent job on an average horse, and may even defeat a good horse.

Cutting horse in action, balanced entirely on hind legs during a very quick shift and turn. staring down the cow.
Photos from left to right. 1) This shot shows the extreme athleticism on the part of the horse that goes with cutting - after a hard stop, the horse, in a split second, throws his weight in the opposite direction, balancing entirely on his hind legs, with his hocks literally on the ground and his hind feet as far forward as his front. 2) An intense moment between horse and bovine.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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