Cutting Fundamentals

Learn how one horse trainer teaches young horses to react and move with cattle.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

The ideal picture of a cutting horse is one of polished concentration and split-second response to the action of the cow.

The ability to excel in cutting depends on breeding, training and an individual’s desire.

Once he lowers his hand, the rider’s role seems diminished, and it can look like the horse is working completely on his own. In reality, that illusion comes from a harmony of movement and a blending of responses between horse and rider.

It takes time to achieve that level of coordination and timing. That poise you see in a world-class cutting horse begins long before it’s displayed in a show pen.

To Doug Jordan, timing in cutting is the by-product of a careful training process. In Doug’s opinion, for a cutting horse to have critical timing requires that the horse gradually assumes more and more responsibility for the performance. He explains, “When you’re cutting, there’s just not enough time for a horse to wait for a rider’s cue. He has to have the confidence to work on his own. My job as a trainer is to develop that confidence.”

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An early morning session in the cutting pen illustrates the premise of Doug’s training philosophy. He rides each horse thoughtfully, testing a control here, asking the horse to respond correctly to the moves of a cow.

Doug is a National Cutting Horse Association Futurity Hall of Famer, but he’s humble about his show ring accomplishments, preferring to see himself as a work in progress, refining his technique constantly.

A Foundation for Confidence

Building that confidence begins early. Take the horse into the pen and just track or follow the cattle around. At this stage, you want the horse to begin to feel comfortable with moving around the cattle. As soon as the horse relaxes and understands that you’re just going to follow the cow around, he will likely start watching the cattle to see which way they’ll go. You’ll see an ear flick in that direction, and you’ll feel the horse start to anticipate the movement of the cattle. That’s the beginning. Timing will come from learning to watch and adjust.

Responding Together

Throughout the training program, use your body position as an important element in training.

Even in the beginning, at a walk, when the horse doesn’t have any idea of your ultimate goal, you still ride him in the posture you’ll use on a finished horse.

Then, on a slow cow, most of the time you can tell when the cow is getting ready to stop or go, so give a small sign to the horse to prepare by changing your body position. If you are consistent and your timing is good, this will begin to have a lot of meaning to him. He’ll feel you prepare your body for a stop, for example, and he’ll read that as a warning to get his body into position, too. It’s a suggestion you’re giving him to make his job easier.

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Mental Guidelines

Some horses are prone to over-react, a response that can be natural or manmade. Think of defending against another basketball player. If you’re jumping around too much, he’s going to wait until you’re out of position and move past you. Your goal is to have the horse’s moves proportional to the action of the cow – mirroring its movements. You don’t want the horse to overwork the cow.

Throughout training, there will be times when the horse will challenge you or be lazy or just not respond correctly. To have confidence, the horse will have to know exactly what is allowed and what is not, so you must be very definite and consistent with your guidelines.

Confidence gives good timing. In training, you reassure a lot. You’ll push the horse toward the top of his ability. Then, if you need to, go back to a less demanding level.

The ultimate role of the rider is to be the adviser and supporter. In a cutting run, there’s no time to direct. The response has to be spontaneous.

The more the horse takes responsibility for the run, the more instant his reactions become. Critical timing is achieved as the rider and the horse respond together in a harmonious duet that creates cutting perfection.