Getting Started in Cutting

Al Dunning gives a Horse & Rider magazine reader the ins and outs on what it takes to get into the sport of cutting--and how to do it without breaking the bank.

In the June 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine, legendary horseman and Team H&R member Al Dunning helps our reader identify the characteristics of individual cattle before working them (Ask Team Horse & Rider, “Cattle 101,” starting on page 77.)

At the novice/non-pro level you don’t have to own a champion cutting-bred horse. If your horse is reasonably athletic, meaning he’s sound, agile, and adequately muscled, you most likely can train him to cut. | Photo by Cappy Jackson

Here’s Al’s debut Team Horse & Rider article from our December 2007 issue, “Cutting Aspirations.” In this article, Al gives our reader–and you–the lowdown on what it really takes to be cutter, and how to do it without breaking the bank (cutting can be an expensive sport). He also provides detailed info about the cattle used for cutting, and what kind of horse it takes to get the job done. (To order a copy of this issue, call 877-717-8928.)

Question: I’ve always been interested in cutting, but have never had the opportunity to try it. I’ve watched cutting events at some of the big shows, and I think I’m a competent enough rider to do it. For the last two years, I’ve shown my 7-year-old Quarter Horse gelding in barrels and reining, and we’ve done quite well.

I don’t know if he’s ever had experience with cows, but he’s pretty athletic. Can I make him a cutting horse, or do I need to buy a horse specifically bred to cut? I’ve also heard that cutting can be pretty expensive. Is there a way to do it on a smaller budget?
Ben Neil
Scott City, Kan.

Answer: Ben, I’m going to shoot straight with you–cutting is an expensive sport. Top-notch cutting horses are expensive; the show entry fees are high; and buying and maintaining cows is costly. The good news: There are ways to participate on a smaller budget. Many local clubs and NCHA affiliates offer shows for novice riders at a more affordable cost. Some provide facilities and practice sessions for riders who don’t own cows. But, if you aim to compete at the big shows, you’ll need to lay down a good chunk of change. In my following tips, I’m going to address cutting at the novice level and give you advice on how to participate without spending a fortune.


I suggest you watch some cutting events before putting in the money, effort, and time required to pursue the sport. Since you’ve already attended some cutting shows, you’ve got a good head start, but I urge you to watch a few lower-level cutting shows. It’s important to note the differences between the big dogs and the novice riders. Only watching world-show competitors will likely leave you feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. Keep in mind that many of these riders are pros; you’ll be starting as a beginner.

Next, find a local cutting group. Go to the National Cutting Horse Association’s website to find an affiliate group in your vicinity. If you can’t find a group near you, and trailering your horse to the nearest affiliate isn’t an option, call the closest chapter and ask about your area. You might find a small group with the facilities and means to practice. You can also call NCHA’s main office and ask for suggestions, or ask fellow horsemen and women in your area or your local tack/feed store owners for leads.

Another good way to prepare is by watching instructional videos and reading books on cutting techniques–and to brush-up on your riding skills. These are also great tune-up tools prior to a competition.

Trainer, First

The most important thing on your cutting “agenda” is to find a good trainer. A good trainer will give you constructive criticism to build your self-esteem and help you enjoy the sport. Cutting is not a sport you can just “pick up” on your own. The NCHA’s website has a list of qualified trainers, so look for one in your area.

Once you have some prospects, attend several of their lessons to determine if his/her teaching style is right for you. I also suggest you observe a prospective trainer’s coaching techniques at a show to see how he works in a stressful environment. Your trainer should also provide the facilities to practice, and help you determine what tack is best for your horse (more on this below).

The Right Horse

Be logical. If you’re looking to buy a new horse, specifically for cutting, seek the expertise of your trainer. At novice shows, pay attention to the caliber of the competitors’ horses and consider one similar. And, make sure you buy a horse that suits your riding abilities–don’t buy a high-energy horse if you’re rusty on your skills or are a green or timid rider.

A horse with ‘cow sense’ means he recognizes a cow and is willing to pursue it with interest. | Photo by Cappy Jackson

Do you need a horse that’s cutting-bred? That depends on how far you want to go in competition. If you’re interested in competing at the novice level, you don’t need a champion-bred cutting horse. If your current horse fits the bill athletically–he’s sound, agile, and adequately muscled for quick movements–you can most likely train him to cut well enough to compete in novice. If you aspire to compete in the big shows, look for a horse that has at least some cutting blood, and one who’s been introduced and trained with cows as a youngster. But, even if you’re showing at the novice level, your horse needs the athletic ability to move and turn quickly, meaning he’s well (but not overly) muscled and he’s flexible and supple through his front and hind ends. So, if you have a great Western pleasure horse or a reliable trail mount, don’t assume he’ll pick up cutting as well as he does his other job. For this particular riding sport, that’s like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

After discussing your training and showing aspirations with your trainer, you’ll be able to assess whether your Quarter Horse will be suitable for the job. If he’s not, you might be tempted to buy a great cutting-bred prospect as a youngster for a lower price, but he’ll likely need full-time training, which could cost $12,000 a year or more (plus his purchase price). For someone who’s just starting out, I suggest you save up and buy a slightly older, more experienced cutting horse, as long as he’s healthy, sound, and safe. The initial price tag might be higher than the younger prospect, but it’ll pay off in the end.

Tack You’ll Need
Consult your trainer to determine the best tack for your horse. Cutting saddles are different from other Western performance saddles. They’re lighter in weight and are less bulky to allow the horse to move fast and freely. The seat is designed to allow the rider to easily move forward and back so he can move with his horse. The saddle’s shorter stirrups prevent the rider from slipping side to side, which can cause both horse and rider to be off-balance and slow. And, as with any saddle, confirm that it and your blanket fit well before mounting.

Your bit choice largely depends on the sensitivity of your horse’s mouth, but you’ll need one that doesn’t hinder his movement–physically or mentally. By mentally, I’m referring to horses that constantly fear or anticipate their mouths being yanked on from a harsh bit or harsh hands. I recommend a bit with a low port and swept back shanks (such as a grazer bit), so your horse can move his head and neck freely.

Other Supplies/Equipment You’ll Need

Because your horse needs to be able to move and turn with lightning speed, your arena’s footing is an extremely important factor. You’re not going to be able to practice in your backyard pasture or on hard ground. If the footing is too hard, your horse could easily slip or fall; if it’s too deep, he could catch a leg and pull a ligament, or worse. You need a good base footing, approximately 6 inches deep. I like to combine my footing with sandy loam, because it contains clay and helps maintain consistency. Ask your trainer about his arena’s footing (or check out those of other pros in your area), and try to imitate it in your own arena.

When introducing your horse to a group of cows, carefully observe his body language to determine his level of interest in them. | Photo by Cappy Jackson

A mechanical cow is also a good investment. Maintaining a group of “fresh”cows (more on this below) can be costly, and a mechanical one will help you practice and fine-tune your skills without the consistent cost of new cows.

“Fresh” Cows
“Fresh” indicates a cow that’s never been worked by a horse. Typically such cows are yearlings, around 350 to 500 pounds. As you probably guessed, maintaining a constant supply of fresh cows can be costly. Often, these cows won’t respond by moving away, because they’re accustomed to horses, and therefore don’t feel the urgency to move.

It’s likely you’ll also notice a change in your horse’s reaction when he’s working with a seasoned group. Instead of being alert and interested in the cows, he’ll likely be sour-eared and won’t pay attention to their movement. Or, he might try to bite, kick, or strike out at a cow that wanders too near. This is when a mechanical cow is useful. They’re great supplements to the real deal, and your trainer most likely has one for you to practice with before you invest in your own.

The Cow-Sense Factor
What exactly does “cow sense” mean? In simple terms, a horse with cow sense recognizes what a cow is, and is willing to pursue it with interest. A horse with cutting breeding is more likely to have the natural instinct to do this. Even so, such a horse will need to be introduced to cows at an early age. But, in most cases, a horse without cutting blood can be trained to have cow sense, as long as he’s reasonably athletic and has adequate muscling.

Training for cow sense. Working in a large arena with “fresh” cows, ask your horse to follow the group–or just one or two cows. Pay attention to your horse’s body language. If his ears are up and you feel his body slightly tense as he watches the cows, he’s paying attention.

Once you’ve followed the cows for a while (until your horse is focused on them) guide him to walk parallel to the cows. Steer him to one side of the group and walk next to them as they move around the arena. Next, guide your horse closer to the cows, but continue to move parallel to them, slightly more toward the front of the group. Then, ask your horse to stop. “Fresh” cows should turn when you do this. When they do, follow them through their turn, so you’re facing the other direction. Practice this multiple times in both directions.

Your homework
Once you’ve amply introduced and worked your horse around the cows, you’ll progress to the main components of cutting–working a cow out of a herd, driving a cow down a fence line, and working a cow in a round pen. In preparation for these more advanced maneuvers, there are several exercises you can practice at home. Below, I’m going to list the fundamental skills of a good cutter. In your regular work sessions, practice your own exercises to hone the following skills:

  • Willingly and quickly stopping in response to your cues.
  • Backing readily when asked.
  • Turning freely; supple in his front and back ends so his body parts move together.
  • Backing smoothly in circles.
  • Turning on the fence (rollbacks).
  • Responding softly and supplely through his mouth, neck, and back.
  • Responsive; no resistance to your cues, which can take his mind off his job.

Keep in mind: Not only does your horse need to be in shape–you do, too. You need to be physically fit so you’ll have adequate stamina and agility to work well with your horse.

Keep in mind: Not only does your horse need to be in shape–you do, too. You need to be physically fit so you’ll have adequate stamina and agility to work well with your horse. This way, you’re not rigid on his back, which can inhibit his movement. Ask your trainer or a fitness expert to suggest exercises out of the saddle to help you stay in shape for cutting.

Final note: Cutting is a great sport, and can be a lot of fun for both you and your horse. Don’t let the cost intimidate you–there are ways you can cut without breaking the bank. So, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities in your area, research what’s out there, and pursue your ambitions to cut!

Revered trainer and legendary horseman Al Dunning has been a leader in the local and national horse industry for over 30 years. He’s currently a carded NRCHA judge and is also active in the AQHA and NCHA. Al and his students have garnered 21 world titles, including nine AQHA world champions, nine AQHA reserve world champions, seven AQHA amateur world titles, 500 Arizona year-end championships, 11 All American Congress winners, and one NRHA world championship. He also won the Pacific Cutting Horse Association Derby and several other major cuttings. For more info on Al, visit

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