Barbra Schulte explains one of the finer points in the game of cutting—when and how to stop working a cow.
Cutting—the contest between horse and cow in which one tries to outthink and outmaneuver the other. The intricate game is set up by the rider, who enters the herd, selects a likely bovine candidate, brings it out of the herd, and then lets the horse go to work. But the cutter’s job doesn’t stop there. While the animals battle for position, the cutter should be one step ahead, watching for signs that the game is about to change. Knowing when to quit a cow and go on to the next one is a skill that takes careful observation, expert timing, and much practice.
According to the contest rules of the National Cutting Horse Association, there are only certain times when it is legal to quit a cow; in other words, stop trying to prevent the animal from returning to the herd. The rule reads: “A contestant may quit an animal when it is obviously stopped, obviously turned away, or is obviously behind the turn-back horses and the turn-back horses are behind the time line. A penalty of 3 points must be charged if the animal is quit under any other circumstances?
Recognizing the signs that a cow is through working, or about to stop, is crucial to success in cutting competition. Reading a cow is like reading a person. If you look hard enough, expressions and body language are dead giveaways to state of mind.
“With practice and experience, you can look at a cow and predict whether she is going to move or stand still, says Barbra Schulte, an NCHA Derby winner and consistent finalist in limited age cutting events. Barbra depends on her ability to read cattle for a living. She has been a professional cutting horse trainer for the past 7 years, and her high rankings in cutting statistics are evidence of her talents in front of a cow.
“When a cow stops, she relaxes and lets down,” says the Brenham, Tex., trainer. “Her head drops a little bit and the tension in her body goes away. By looking, you can tell that the cow is going to remain stopped no matter what position she is in, whether she is looking at you or is turned away from you. And you can tell when a cow won’t remain stopped for long. Her head will be up, there will be obvious tension throughout her body, and she will have a real alert look.”
As a cutter, you also need to be aware of how much pressure your turn-back men are putting on the cow. If your helpers back off when the cow stops, and you are not too close to the cow either, chances are she will remain stopped.
Probably the safest time to quit a cow legally is when you see her hindquarters as she moves away from you. One of the more common ways to get in trouble, Barbra says, is not waiting for the cow to complete the turn. Many times a cow will make a slight motion like she is going to turn away, and instead she’ll turn back into you. You’ll get docked the 3 points for a “hot quit” if you’ve already left the cow to get another one.
“Really, there is no reason to hot quit,” Barbra says. “A cutter might take the hot quit because he thinks he is about to lose the cow anyway, but maybe he wouldn’t if he had kept on with it. Or maybe he thinks his horse is leaking (moving toward the cow, instead of holding ground in front of the herd), and calls his horse off the cow, when actually it might not look as bad to the judge as the cutter thinks.
Barbra suggests finding a place to quit when you see the cow’s attention span diminish. Don’t wait for a good cow to go bad and start running.
“In my opinion, it is better to take a chance on losing a cow, even though that costs 5 points,” Barbra explains, “than to hot quit. When you hot quit, you take yourself voluntarily out of the cutting, since an automatic 3-point deduction is hard to overcome. Most hot quits, 95 percent of them, happen when people are afraid. They think something they can’t control is going to happen.”
A cow usually will work anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds, as far as paying attention to the horse. A good cow is one that sets up in the middle of the arena, looks at the horse, and moves about 20 feet in either direction at a moderate rate. However, even a good cow is going to do that for only so long, Barbra warns. When the cow gets tired of the game, she either runs back and forth from fence to fence, or she tries to run through the turn-back men, or come hard at the cutter.
Barbra suggests finding a place to quit when you see the cow’s attention span diminish. Don’t wait for a good cow to go bad and start running. Once a cow takes a dart for the fence, she’s not going to be good again. The old saying “Quit while you are ahead” applies here.
When you get a bad cow—one that starts running immediately or one that threatens or challenges the horse—quit at your first opportunity, even though you worked her only a short time. You won’t gain any points by running back and forth chasing the cow. A lot of cutters think they have to work bad cattle when they get them. That’s not necessarily true. Usually, there is enough time in the 2½ minutes that you work to cut three cattle. Sometimes you can do a good job with just two cattle, if they are good, and you can work each one longer than 20 seconds.
“The ideal cow,” Barbra explains, “is one that looks at you when you cut her out of the herd and bring her to the center. She attaches to the horse and the horse attaches to her. That is why we call cutting horses ‘cow horses.’ They are in tune with the cow; they sense the cow.
“And a good cow senses the horse. She reacts to the horse’s presence by looking at the horse and kind of playing with him. A good cow tries to get back to the herd, but not very hard. She moves back and forth, maybe 10 feet here or there, stops for a moment, then moves again. While the cow never really puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the horse, she never leaves the horse either. An excellent cow keeps doing this and may do it beyond 20 seconds. If that cow continues to work that way, stay with her.”
When you notice a change in the cow, even the slightest lack of attention, Barbra says to look for a place to quit. That cow has “released” the horse, which is a cutters’ term meaning the cow is through working. Once a cow has released the horse, she has come to understand that the people on horses have her hemmed in, and all she wants to do is go somewhere else. She doesn’t have any more respect for the cutter than she does for the crowd or turn-back men. A bad cow never attaches to the horse. She tries to run away immediately when she’s cut from the herd.
Cattle have patterns of behavior. A cow that starts to circle is going to keep circling. A cow that looks at the horse, then releases him and starts running, keeps that up. Sometimes, a cow gets attached to a turn-back horse and that is no good for the cutter either. You can usually depend on the cow sticking with her pattern. Don’t look for her to change and get better.
Barbra believes breeds of cattle have certain characteristics that show up in the cutting pen. She favors crossbred Brahmas, which are quick and flighty, but she likes their alertness and the way they stay in tune with horses.
Hereford cattle, or other English breeds, are slower in nature, which may make them easier to work on one hand, but they also can get “numb,” which means they don’t know the cutting horses are there. All they want to do is get back to the herd, and they might wallow into the horse to get there.
A really good cow is intimidated by the horse. She might want to get back to the herd, but she allows the horse to block her.
Barbra strongly recommends watching the herd being settled before the cutting, especially if you have a pen full of different breeds. Notice which ones pay attention to the horse and which ones run down the fence as the horse goes by. Cattle that stand still, don’t mind being alone, and look at the horse because they are curious are always the best to cut.
“I like cattle with a little Brahma in them, but I always watch for behavior,” Barbra says. “Behavior is my biggest concern. I like a cow that is quiet, but curious, and she could be of any breeding. There are certain types I care for less, but if their behavior is excellent when I watch them, I’ll still cut them.”
In competition, it looks good to quit a cow in the center of the pen, rather than on the fence. But the reality of when you can quit is not always controllable. You can’t keep working the cow, waiting for the perfect time to quit. If you have worked the cow a good amount of time, and the opportunity presents itself, quit as close to the center as you can.
Whenever you do quit, you want to project a sense of control and finesse to the judge. Even if you have to quit in a hurry, don’t make your actions look quick or scattered, Barbra says. Don’t jerk your reins or the horse around. A better way to quit is to smoothly lift the reins, and quietly put your hand on the horse’s neck, then stand there for a moment. A good showmanship tip is to look at the cow as she is leaving. Look as if that is what you wanted the cow to do and you were in complete control the whole time.
The rules for practicing at home are no different than at a show. However, the situations you find yourself in can dictate new strategies. Most cutters aren’t lucky enough to have fresh cattle every day, so they have to deal with sour cattle that have been worked extensively and that release horses quickly. Make sure you quit a cow while your horse is still looking at her. Even if you feel your horse has released the cow and doesn’t want to work her anymore, don’t let him quit. If you do, your horse will think he can stop working when he wants. Never let your horse quit unless you tell him.
Also, never quit on the fence at home. Always take the horse off the fence and quit while stopped in the center or moving toward the center. That way it becomes natural for the horse to quit when the rider dictates.
During Barbra’s cutting clinics, which she gives several times throughout the year, she stresses quitting legally to her students. She wants them to get to a point where they don’t have to think about it.
“There are so many things in showing cutting horses you have to feel and think about,” Barbra says, ” that if you concentrate on quitting, a lot of times you’ll miss the opportunity. The more you practice getting it automatic, the better. If you practice quitting legally at home, then you won’t hot quit at a show.
“In cutting competition what you are doing is presenting a picture from the moment you walk into the herd until the buzzer goes off. Your picture should be of a smooth and controlled performance with lots of subtle pieces that fit together. The way you quit a cow is one of those subtle things that can really add to a run. It might earn you a half-point. The judge might not consciously think, ‘I really liked the way he quit that cow,’ but subconsciously it may have an effect on him. Knowing how to cut good cattle, when those cattle run out of life, quitting them before they do, and quitting bad cattle immediately are all part of good showmanship and a winning strategy.”
This article was originally published in the January 1991 issue of Western Horseman.