Straight Through the Herd: Showing Cutting Horses

Straight Through the Herd: Showing Cutting Horses

Austin Shepard’s winning formula for a high-scoring cutting horse runs starts with driving straight through the herd.

Austin Shepard cutting angles (Credit: Darrell Dodds)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Katie Tims

Photos by Darrell Dodds

One. Two. Probably three. The ideal cutting performance starts with simple arithmetic. How many cows can you cut inside the 2½-minute parameter? But the problem solving doesn’t end there. Then you’ll need to factor in the variables of cattle, horse and rider, and apply some basic geometry. Finally, you’ll multiply by the coefficient of luck.

And there you have it: Cutting math made easy.

OK, maybe not so easy.

Alabama horseman Austin Shepard has spent decades calculating cattle. He knows that solving the winning cutting equation is harder than it looks. Cutting is the “Uncertainty Principle” defined. It’s simply not possible to measure momentum and position with precision, not when a cow’s real intentions are anything but predictable.

From the moment he rides into a herd, Austin measures the angles and applies the bovine version of Newton’s Law of Motion. He does most of the figuring in his head so he can be proactive instead of reactive. The formula works, as evidenced by Austin’s $9.1 million in winnings and induction into the National Cutting Horse Association Riders Hall of Fame.

“It’s all about being able to be in the right spot to control the cow,” says Austin. He may go deep into the bunch or skim a few off the top, but either way, Austin watches the cow and positions his horse at an angle that offers advantage.

Straight Lines

Austin's runs starts with a straight line drive out of the herd.

"The best time to drive out of the herd is when the cow is walking away from you," Austin says. "Your job is to take your cow up past the other cows. We call it ‘clearing yourself.’ ”

Walking a straight line sounds easy. And it can be. But remember that the judges are watching, and every single impression sets the tone for the rest of the run.

“Be careful how you use your hands,” Austin advises. “People will move their hands too much and get their feet into the horse, which makes the horse nervous. They don’t even realize they’re doing it.”

“Really and truly, if you’ll walk up there with no pressure, step in front of the cow and stop it, you’ve made the perfect cut without doing anything too extravagant.”

Austin explains it’s important to take charge of the situation when entering the herd to push out your pick. At this point, it feels like there’s a lot going on all at once – the cows, your horse, your help, your nerves – you might get tentative and ease up, which is a mistake.

“When those cows are walking away and you can follow them, that’s when you’re in control,” Austin says. “When you quit pushing, you’ve arrived. Once those cows turn around and look at you, your horse is going to react.”

If you’re still too close to the herd and your cow is buddied up with two or three compadres, well, you’ve got a problem.

“Once that cow turns around, a good horse won’t go forward,” Austin warns. “That’s when you hear people say, ‘Drive up! Drive up!’ The rider goes to kicking, the horse jumps and it’s a wreck.”

There is no official measurement for how far out you should push your cow. Nor is there a gauge for how strong to press ahead. But your horse needs room in front of that herd to work, so give him space.

“You want to push hard enough so you can take that cow where you want to go, but you don’t want to scare it,” says Austin. “It’s a fine line, and sometimes you can’t help but hurry up there aggressively because it’s a matter of survival.”

1. Austin walks into the herd and pushes out a small bunch. Notice the first heifer starting back toward the herd.

2. Continuing to drive out, Austin begins to shape the cow he wants while allowing the rest to roll around to his right.

3. Can you tell which heifer Austin wants? Hint: He’s stepping ahead so it will move to the back of the line.

4. In an ideal cut, Austin’s cow is the last to come around.

Working a Triangle

It’s when you’re pushing out from the herd with about a half-dozen black heifers that all those “cow-reading” lessons will come in handy. You have to choose one, but you want it to be the right one. If you know your stuff, you can anticipate and then apply the concept of the scalene triangle.

A scalene triangle is one in which the sides of the triangle are uneven in length. In cutting terms, think of it this way: The cow travels along a straight line that forms one side of the triangle – the longest side. The horse works the other two shorter sides. On one line, you’re in front taking charge. On the other line of the triangle, you’re far enough back to let the cow think that the direction she’s traveling is her idea.

By working those two angles to your best advantage, you’ll be able to stop, set-up and control the cow.

It begins when you walk into the herd, push some cattle out and let them roll around you. If you’re riding in on the left side of the herd, you’ll push the cows out to the right and leave enough room so the cows see an open route back to the herd on your left.

“Take those cows and roll them so your cow is the last one coming out,” Austin instructs. “That cow is always going to want to follow the others.”

Give yourself the advantage by keeping that side of the triangle short.

“The cow that is in front of the herd is going to be the hardest one to stop,” he notes. “The easiest cow to cut from the herd is going to be on the back of the flow – the last cow to come around.

“Put that fresh cow where you would if you were trying to shape it,” Austin says.

By this he means, as your cow nears the middle of the pen, take control. Stop her. Do this by angling your horse perpendicular to the cow and riding toward her neck – the sweet spot for halting the cow’s forward motion and turning her out toward the judge’s stand. Austin says this makes the cut prettier and the cow better.

“Buster Welch told me, ‘If you get in the cow’s neck and you drive it, you can take it wherever you want to go. But if that cow ever feels like it’s got the advantage, then it takes you wherever it wants to go.’ ”

Every cutter – including those million-dollar winners – knows the Uncertainty Principle has a tendency to prevail at the moment you step up to stop the cow. Mostly, two things go wrong: one, your cow muscles her way back to the inside of the flow and gets too close to your horse; or two, your cow stops in the middle of the pen, but now she’s sprinting back the other direction.

Both situations are fixable, but they’re seldom easy and always ugly.

“If you have to stop aggressively on that cow four or five times on your cut, it’s probably not going to be a very good cow when you put your hand down because you’ve already been working it,” Austin warns.

Of course, the term “good cow” is open to interpretation.

“People will say, ‘Aww, that wasn’t a very good cow.’ Really and truly, the problem was how you handled it on the cut,” he observes.

This is why it’s imperative to take charge the moment you push out of the herd, he advises. Cows are going to do what cows are going to do. It’s your job to understand the geometry of working cattle. Shorten your angle to get the cows filing around. Then lengthen your angle as you step up and stop the cow, and turn her in the middle of the pen. Earn her respect.

“Wherever you cut that cow, and however you cut that cow, that’s how that cow is going to work,” Austin observes. “As Buster (Welch) says, ‘You can cut a good cow bad or a bad cow good. What you do makes that cow one way or the other.’ ”

Austin steps his horse ahead, playing defense, to stop the cow’s forward motion and separate her from the others.

Once the cow is cleared from the others, Austin is in a position where he starts to lower his hand. Ideally, he’d like that to be on a turn. But sometimes it’s on the run, as it is in this situation.


From the side, you can see the angle at which Austin places his horse in order to drive the cow out.

Austin sets up his horse, which encourages the cow to stop and turn.

Mission accomplished!

About the Source: Austin Shepard

Austin Shepard is one of the cutting industry’s most successful showmen. He is the son of NCHA Hall of Famer Sam Shepard. Austin has $9.1 million in earnings, which includes the 2007 NCHA Futurity open championship aboard High Brow CD, a stallion who earned more than $500,000 in the show pen. Austin and his wife, Stacy, make their home in Summerdale, Alabama, where they operate a full-service training facility. They have two children: son Cade and daughter Caylee, who both ride cutting horses. Cade is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the NCHA Non-Pro Hall of Fame.