Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cutting Horses

Have you ever dreamed what it would be like to be a top-notch cutting horse rider? Can you imagine the feeling of riding a good horse when its working a tough cow?

I'll tell you, it's an experience that is absolutely thrilling!

Once you ride a cutting horse and experience those big stops and hard turns, there is no going back. You are "hooked". And I mean totally... hook, line and sinker.

I remember well the first time I ever rode a trained cutting horse. It had such an impact on me that I'll never forget it.

At the time, I was working for a huge cattle ranch as their colt starter. I was just
beginning my career training horses and I really didn't know much. But, I had a burning desire to succeed at my chosen profession and worked hard to learn
all I could.

This cattle ranch was always short on cowboys and one day the cow boss asked
me if I would work with the cow crew that day because they needed extra hands to help with gathering and sorting some cows and calves.

I said sure, I'd be happy to go along but I wouldn't be much help riding one of my
2 year olds. He pointed to a palomino mare out in the pasture and told me to use her for the days work. He also warned me she hadn't been ridden for over a year.

I caught the mare, saddled her up and turned her loose in a pen to see what she'd do. She crow-hopped a bit but that was it. So, I climbed aboard and away we went.

The pasture that we were to gather, contained around 200 head of mother cows
plus their calves. The plan was to drive the whole herd into a corner, then separate
the "dry" cows (these are cows that didn't produce a calf) from the "mother" cows.

Separating or "cutting out" the dry cows from the herd this way was a tricky business. One wrong move, one mistake, could spook the herd and send them scattering in all directions. Thus wasting all the time and effort it took to get them rounded up.

Because of the skill involved, it was usually the "cow boss" (foreman) who did the cutting.

On this ranch, the cow boss was a man named Walter Matlock. What a hell of a hand! To this day, Walter is still one of the best all-around hands I've ever seen. His horses would rope, head or heel, cut cattle, stop on a dime and spin like a top.

The man knew horses and he knew cattle.

Walter was also the best "marksman" with a bullwhip that I've ever seen.
At will, Walter could either "sting" or "cut" any part of a cows body with
that whip. He could easily hit the cow's left ear, right ear, the nose or tail.

One day, I jokingly said, "Hey Walter, there's a horse fly pestering my horse. Get him with your whip".

In the blink of an eye, Walter's whip literally "exploded" the insect off my horse's back. It sounded like a high-powered rifle shot. He got the fly and didn't even touch the horse. (I'm not exaggerating here. You had to see it to believe it).

Anyway, I'm getting off track. Back to the herd of cattle.

I watched Walter quietly enter the herd and ease out a dry cow. When the cow would turn to get back to the herd, Walter's horse would counter each move with a "bigger", "faster" move and contain the cow in one small area. It was mesmerizing to watch.

After watching Walter cut cattle for 20 minutes or so, he asked me if I'd like to give it a try. You betcha, I was dying to! Trouble was, I'd never done it before and didn't have a clue. My focus had always been on learning how to train a reining horse. I didn't have much experience working cattle.

He told me, "just ease in and drive out that "brindle" colored cow. Once you have her clear of the herd, drop your rein hand, sit relaxed and keep both your eyes focused on the cow. Trust the mare and let her work on her own".

Well, I did as he instructed and when I dropped my hand to signal the mare that she was on her own, man o' man, what a ride.

This little palomino mare dropped straight down on her belly, crouched and ready to spring. Each time the cow moved, the mare would leap through he air and then drag her butt in the dirt, blocking the cow's every attempt to rejoin the herd.

By far, it was the most fun I'd ever had on the back of a horse. Actually, the word "fun" doesn't accurately describe it. "Exhilarating" would be more like it. I was so excited by the experience, I could hardly sleep that night.

I learned later, that palomino mare had competed at the NCHA futurity a year earlier. She had done well, made the finals and placed 5th. No wonder she was so good..

Over the years, I've met a lot of folks who have experienced riding a cutting horse and gotten "hooked" the same way I did. Unfortunately, some of them haven't had the benefit of receiving good instruction. They encounter problems when riding their cutter.

In reality, learning to ride a cutting horse isn't that difficult. If you can master a few
basic principals and practice those principals until they become "muscle memory",
you will have success pretty darn quick.

Below I've listed some of the most common mistakes new cutters make.

Biggest Mistakes Made by Cutting Horse Riders

Trying to Learn to Cut on a Green Cutting Horse.
If you are a person who loves frustration, then trying to learn to cut on a green horse is definitely the way to go =o)

Seriously though, cutting is one of the most challenging show events you can do on horseback. During a cutting run, you have three separate "beings" to deal with... yourself, the horse and the cow.

When you're new and just learning, its hard enough just to concentrate on YOURSELF. Let alone a cow and a horse that doesn't know his job.

Its far better to learn on a fully trained horse that really knows his job. You will learn much faster if you do.

Now, let me make this clear. I'm talking about "competition cutting" here.

If you just want to have some fun by working your horse on cattle, by all means, have at it. You'll have a blast and gain some valuable experience. However, if you are serious about competing, then go get help from a top cutting horse trainer.

Rider's Body is Tense & Stiff Instead of Loose & Relaxed.
Its imperative that you ride with your body totally relaxed.

Trying to ride a cutting horse while your body is stiff is the most common fault you will see in the cutting arena. It's also one of the worst faults a cutting horse rider can have.

Why? Because body stiffness causes a MULTITUDE of problems.

Here are just a few...
A. Causes the horse to miss the stop.
B. Causes the horse to round the turns and leak up the arena.
C. Causes the rider to fall forward and lose his balance.
D. Causes the horse to lose his form and style on a cow.

Bottom line, if the rider can't sit in the saddle relaxed, nothing goes right.

Failure to Make a Clean Cut in the Middle of the Pen.
In other words, cutting on the run. If the run doesn't start right, it usually doesn't
finish very well either. Ideally, you want to cut a cow in the center of the arena
with your horse "faced up" and "even" with the cow.

This means before you drop your hand, the horse needs to be looking directly at the cow you want to cut and be positioned on the cow correctly. Not placed out-of-wack, too far to the right or left of the cow.

Many beginning cutters will experience "tunnel vision" and get focused on running cows. What they need to do is slow down and focus on the cows that want to stop and stay for their horse.

Rider Takes His Eyes Off the Cow & Looks at the Horse's Head.
This is the quickest way I know of to get thrown off the back of a cutting horse. Many beginning cutters are unable to "feel" the position of the horse's body so they take their eyes off the cow and look at the horse to check what he is doing.

This is a huge mistake. See, the rider's "timing" and "balance" comes from watching the cow. Whenever a rider takes his eyes off the cow and looks at the horse's head, he is no longer aware of when the cow is going to stop and turn.

I've seen plenty of riders hit the ground because they took their eyes off the cow just as it stopped and went the other way. The horse went the other way too but the rider didn't. Usually, the rider isn't even aware of this problem.

The Rider Not Correctly Sitting the Stop.
This one mistake is responsible for cutting horses "missing" their cattle than any other thing I can think of.

When the cow is running across the pen and then stops and goes the other way, it's imperative that the rider sits down in the saddle to help his horse. This "sitting down" does two very important things.

1. It tells the horse that its time to stick his butt in the dirt and apply the brakes.

2. It also allows the rider to maintain balance during the hard stop and turn.

The "sit down" consists of the rider rounding his lower back, tucking his pelvis under him and trying to sit on his jean pockets. It's also important for the rider's shoulders to be positioned directly over his hips... Not leaning too far forward or too far back.

Unfortunately, many riders "hollow out" and arch their back. Making their spine rigid. The result is usually the horse not stopping in time with the cow and the rider losing his balance by falling forward.

The Rider Leaning His Upper Body Towards the Cow.
Okay, this is the rider mistake I see the most at the shows. And it's a mistake that MUST be corrected if the horse is ever going to work correctly.

See, a horse will "follow" the rider's body weight. If the rider is leaning towards the cow, the horse will travel towards the cow. This causes the horse to round his turns instead of sitting down and coming over his hocks.

This leaning will also cause the horse to "leak" up the pen and lose his proper position. Leaning can also cause a horse to get out of sync with the cow. All in all, this "leaning rider syndrome" causes some pretty ugly stuff to happen.

What causes the rider to lean in the first place? It can be a variety of things. Maybe the rider doesn't trust that his horse is going to turn with the cow and he is leaning in an attempt to get the horse to turn.

The leaning can also be caused by just plain old nervousness or fear. Many riders have "stage fright" when they first learn to cut.

The cure is to condition your "muscle memory" to keep your body relaxed, loose and centered while you ride.

The Rider's Lack of Essential Horsemanship Skills.
A lot of people think that because cutting horses work on their own, all the rider has to do is just cut a cow and hang on. Well, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Yes it's true, cutting horses do work on their own but the rider has a HUGE influence on how well that horse works. A cutting horse rider needs to be more of a "jockey" than a mere "passenger".

That means you will have a lot more success cutting if you are a knowledgeable horseman. The rider who knows how to stop and turn a horse over his hocks and position a horse's body with leg cues, will have a tremendous advantage over the rider who doesn't.

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