Photography by John Brasseaux
Four horsewomen gather at Oklahoma’s Liberty Ranch, to see if they have the salt, seat and savvy it takes to survive one week in the cutting pen.
IT’S THE FIRST OF SIX SWELTERING DAYS IN THE SADDLE, and I’m beginning to question the heavy starch in my jeans.
A professional habit, the grievous error never occurred to me until after I began warming up my horse. It’s early July in eastern Oklahoma. What could I possibly have been thinking?
Oversight aside, I settle into Buddy’s rocking-chair lope as instructor Lee Sellers watches from the center of the covered arena. Save for his flamboyant tall-top boots, Lee is an unassuming horseman, whose dry wit and plain-spoken manner are a welcome contrast to my preconceived notion of meeting what I feared would be a drill sergeant.
He is a rarity in the cutting world, I’m told, a natural-born teacher of horses and people. I like him immediately.
With each lap, I focus not on the anxiety of learning a new discipline or my ever-looming deadlines, but on the sorrel gelding beneath me. I’m on vacation, I remind myself. Slowly, the tension in my neck and shoulders dissipates as my mind flushes away the last dregs of worry. For one humid week in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, I will be horseback at what has been described as cutting boot camp.
My base of operations is Liberty Ranch, a 7,000-acre working cattle ranch situated in the heart of Oklahoma’s cattle country, Osage County. A land plentiful in history and natural resources, the county is home to the Osage Nation, as well as some of America’s richest grazing land and oil reserves. The picturesque spread is the longtime dream of Jerry and Marlene Mosley, who purchased the property in 2005.
A cattle outfit first and foremost, Liberty keeps on hand a well-bred cavvy of good-minded, cow-blooded horses and a handful of equally gifted horsemen. All play an important part in another, more personal mission.
Battle-scarred from admittedly “making every mistake you can make starting out in the sport of cutting,” the Mosleys were determined to ease the transition for other enthusiasts by offering intense, hands-on experiences for both novices and experienced competitors.
“We want to help introduce people to the sport correctly,” Jerry explains. “Our goal is not to train and sell you a horse that can cut, but to train you to be a good cutter.”
It is this philosophy, applied in a class of no more than five riders, which drew me to Liberty in the first place. For me, the all-inclusive stay is a justifiable escape from the confines of the workplace and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to delve into the adrenaline-pumping sport of cutting.
My classmates, all Oklahoma residents, are Cherie Long of Oolagah, Candy Thomas of Pawhuska and Terry Williams of Muskogee. They are relatively new to the sport themselves, but, as return guests, come with a working knowledge of cutting basics. According to Terry, the time aboard Liberty’s seasoned cutters gives her renewed hope that she will one day be prepared to show her own horse, which is currently in training. For cutting competitors Cherie and Candy, it’s a chance to sharpen both their horses and horsemanship skills before an upcoming National Cutting Horse Association show.
BOOT CAMP BEGINS in one of Liberty’s lush pastures, where Lee leads the class on an early morning trek to gather the day’s practice cattle. Here, miles from the nearest fence line, I learn the first of many lessons—herd behavior. The cattle are worked often from horseback, but are sometimes reluctant to leave their bluestem buffet for the barren holding pens outside the arena.
As we observe how cattle move in their natural setting, Lee encourages us to use our horses to drive, stop and otherwise encourage the herd to head to the pens.
The cattle move quickly once inside the confines of the arena, forcing horse and rider to move through the herd with caution and deliberate patience. To reduce audible distractions and help improve the response time between instruction and application, each student is outfitted with a wireless headset tuned to Lee’s play-by-play commentary.
I’m the first one into the herd after it has settled. My directions are simple: walk a cow out of the herd, get a seat and drop my hand. The moment my hand touches Buddy’s neck, the sedate gelding “locks on” to the cow we have separated and grabs a hidden gear as our bold friend makes a daring advance back toward the herd. We are just inches, it seems, from the wall when Buddy senses the cow stopping and throws on his brakes.
Feeling like a sack of groceries in the back of a speeding pickup, I readjust my white-knuckled grip on the horn with my free hand and take a quick inventory. Before I can mumble the words, “still here,” Buddy and I make an extreme right-hand turn, mirroring the movement of the cow. Faced up and equally winded, the three of us stare each other down in the center of the pen. Only when the cow yields and turns away from the herd, do I hear Lee tell me to tag off.
THIS FIRST TASTE OF CUTTING has my legs shaking, heart pounding and the rest of me craving more. Muscles I feel certain I have used sparingly in my colt-riding pursuits have rallied in my quest to stay aboard. I concede that this isn’t as easy as it looks.
Breaking only for lunch, we spend the rest of the day learning the feel of our horses in front of a cow. My first day of boot camp ends with a hearty dinner, animated horse conversation and a stiff-legged walk to the room for a coma-like slumber.
I rise earlier each morning, eager to hoist my increasingly sore body aboard a horse for the day’s eight-hour cutting lesson. The clinic offers total immersion in the art of horse-cow interaction, the syllabus including how to hold the line on a cow, the necessity of sitting through a stop, choosing a “cuttable” cow, what makes a credit cut, how to shape your horse, when to make a deep cut, and more. All, contends Lee, are essential to understanding and enjoying the sport.
Luckily for me, Liberty’s ample cattle supply and intimate clinic size provide opportunities to put my lessons to use. On an average day, I make 10 to 15 trips into the herd. And, when I’m not making a run myself, I apply my fledgling skills as turnback help for my classmates. My equine partners do their part to train me, as well. As my confidence grows and horsemanship improves, Lee makes sure I’m paired with a horse that can help take me to the next level.
Over the course of the week, I ride a handful of seasoned cutters, each with its own style and lessons to teach.
IT TAKES A SPECIAL KIND OF HORSE to be able to cut well and pack a beginner. I’m sure Buddy would agree. Though he never takes advantage of my inexperience, sometimes I get the feeling he could do his job more efficiently without me. Buddy, like the other horses in Liberty’s remuda, was selected first for his mind and second for his talent, Lee explains.
“It takes a unique mix of horses to do what we do,” he says. “Our horses have to stay mentally and physically sound under some pretty strenuous conditions. And, at the end of each day, they have to still want to cut a cow.”
From confidence-builders to those that can really move, Liberty horses are matched to each rider’s level.
“Not everybody can ride a champion cutting horse,” notes Jerry. “There are open horses that only the trainers ride, and there’s a reason for that. Our goal is not to scare our students, it’s to teach them.”
IT’S GRADUATION DAY, and we celebrate in true Liberty Ranch style—we go on a gather. It’s been an unusually wet year for eastern Oklahoma, and the pastures are thick with fattened cattle, lush grass and crippling foot rot. Mounted on a keen little gray cutting mare, I follow the collective herd of riders—the Mosleys, Liberty Ranch staffers and my classmates—through the rolling countryside in search of cattle.
There’s something about loping a good horse across open country that stirs the soul. The gray and I take charge of a bunch of cattle on the lower side of the pasture, cutting the foot-rot cows and pushing the others toward the slowly forming mass of cattle to the west. Out here, there are no walls and no timer, but the principles of cutting are still the same.
I rejoin the group just in time to see Lee drop a loop on a wayward calf. What’s interesting about this everyday scene is the horse on the other end of the rope—it’s his cutting futurity colt. I guess for this Panhandle horseman, a good cutting horse is a well-rounded one.
I drift off to sleep that night with a full week’s work behind me and a belly full of Liberty Ranch beef. Normally, the clinic would culminate with a cutting jackpot held at the ranch, but tomorrow my Liberty Ranch experience will be put to the test at a local NCHA show.
CATTLE BEWARE, I warn, as we pull onto the show grounds. I’m not sure if it’s Marlene’s amateur show horse I’m riding or the custom rig I get to work from, but I feel prepared to take on Cowzilla if need be.
As the day drags on, queasiness replaces confidence. I could blame it on the heat, but truth-be-known, the show jitters have found me. My seasoned mount senses my anxiety and somehow manages to keep me from getting run over in the warm-up pen. Somewhere in the NCHA rulebook, I recall a statement advising competitors to “exercise good humor” in the loping pen. Humor, I surmise, must show itself differently in the cutting world.
Lee is waiting for me inside when I enter the arena. He is part of my turnback team and a welcome sight in this pen full of re-run cattle. My goal is simple: cut three cows in the allotted time and stay in the middle of my horse while doing it. Like everyone, I start my run with a score of 70 points. Based on my performance, the judges decide whether to take away or add points to determine my final score.
Points are the last thing on my mind when I drop my hand.
The next two-and-a-half minutes are a blur. I leave the pen high on adrenaline and with a respectable score of 68. In the end, it’s good enough to place me third in the class of nine. My classmates are not as fortunate. Lost cattle and technical point deductions drop their scores, but not their enthusiasm, as each vows to beat the odds next time.
“It’s the challenge of being able to do it correctly that’s addicting,” explains Jerry. “You have two herd holders, two turnback guys, 25 to 30 cattle that don’t know what they’re doing there, a judge that you’re not really sure what he’s looking for, and then you and your horse. Putting together a really good run with all those variables is something that doesn’t come easily. When it does, it’s really special.”
DURING THE FLIGHT bound for Colorado and my 8-to-5 grind, I secretly vow to ride the office chair less and my horses more, lest I forget why I chose this profession in the first place. I resist the urge to work, opting to pull my Liberty Ranch cap down over my eyes for some much-needed sleep. In my dreams, catty little horses are never bested by bold cattle, and I always make a clean cut.
Jennifer Zehnder is a Western Horseman associate editor.