Cutting horse riders speak about friendship and competition.
By James Dusek
Cutting is the waltz: It happens slowly, quietly, then all at once. The rider brings a horse into a herd of cattle and finds a dancing partner. The horse and rider lead the chosen cattle away from the herd and begin the dance.
Cutting is the quickstep: horse and cattle, dashing around the arena, the horse mirroring the cattle’s every movement like a shadow — a routine it’s practiced since it was 2.
The cattle leads, darting left and right to reunite with its herd. The horse follows, responding to the cattle within fractions of a second. The horse’s reactions to the cattle create a barrier between the animal and its herd — a half-ton equine wall.
Cutting is the tango: partners connected in mind and body, intuiting the thoughts and actions of one another. The dance is as mental as it is physical; it’s math and physics, each participant — cattle, horse, human — a factor in calculations of motion and energy.
Rider Denise Bendele has trained in “the dance” for two decades and has ridden horses since she was 9.
“The sport is very physical; it’s really neat,” she said. “The cow and a horse, working together.”
Bendele and her horse, That Sly Chance, competed in the $50,000 amateur competition at the 68th annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo Feb. 11.
The competition consisted of 29 horses and riders who had won less than $50,000 over their competitive careers.
Each competitor was given two and a half minutes to cut at least two cows from the herd, one at a time, and keep the cut cow away from the herd. Points were given for style, skill and the position of the cow in the herd.
The sport comes from ranchers sorting and managing herds of cattle. Before it was a competition, it was a necessity.
When the cow is led out of the herd and the dance begins, the rider lowers the reins and lets the horse do the work. With little guidance from the rider, the horse becomes the star of the show.
“When the horse is really good, it’s like they’re just right in line with the cow,” Bendele said. “Just in tune with the cow, making every move the cow makes, and really controls the situation.”
In a room to the left of the showing area, where about 100 people sat waiting for the runs to begin, riders Raena Wharton and Teddi Harllee watched horses and their trainers take turns at the “tuneup,” chasing a small black-and-white striped flag moving on a string nearly the entire length of the room.
Wharton and Harllee have been friends since 1981. They met through competing against one another. Though Harllee doesn’t compete anymore, she still attends events to see friends like Wharton.
“This sport is all about horses and friends,” Wharton said.
During a run, four riders besides the competitor are in the arena: one on either side of the herd, keeping it in place, and two in front of the judges’ stands at the front of the arena, keeping the cut cattle from running and leaving the dance floor early.
The helpers are often competitors as well. The ones assisting a rider may well be vying for the same cash prize as the one they’re helping.
“You can go to a cutting in Texas anywhere, and we’ll know someone,” Harllee said. “It’s a tight little family.”
Harllee started riding horses more than 60 years ago, when she was a little girl. Wharton has ridden for more than 50. When she first rode a cutting horse about 30 years ago, she was hooked.
“I had done a lot of things on a horse, and the first time I ever rode a cutting horse, I thought ‘I don’t care if I ever do anything else on a horse. This is it,’” Wharton said.
Wharton said the reason the sport grabs the attention of people like herself, Harllee and Bendele, is how it consistently challenges the horses and riders.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, for one,” she said. “But it’s such a mental challenge.”
The interactions between the horse, cow, rider, environment and helpers add up to an unpredictable and unique run every time, Wharton said.
“No matter how long you’ve been showing the horse, every single run is different,” she said, “because the cows will do something different, the arena will be different, the ground will be different.”
Bendele cut three head of cattle in her run. For a moment, That Sly Chance stared down the first white calf. Every step the cow made to the left or right, the horse made without breaking eye contact.
That Sly Chance placed fourth with a score of 142.5, earning Bendele $976.37.
For the riders, cutting brings together a family of humans and horses for an activity both mental and physical. It’s more than a sport, Harllee said. “It’s a way of life.”