We’re always looking for interesting things to do with the 4H kids in our community. One of the latest activities was a trip to watch a local cutting horse trainer work his horses. Cutting horses, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, are horses trained to bring a cow or calf out of a herd and make it go where the rider wants it to go. The cow — not surprisingly — wants to go back with her buddies, and the horse must be very agile and quick to keep her separated. In the days when cattle spent most of their lives on the open range and fences were few and far between, a cutting horse was absolutely vital to doctor, brand or work cattle.
Although you can teach horses of any breed to cut cattle, the Quarter Horse has a couple of centuries of what is called cow sense bred into it, and all champion cutting horses come from that breed. The stallion Doc Bar, probably the premier cutting horse sire, was a shining example of a classic cutting horse. They tend to be shorter than the average Quarter Horse, with very heavily muscled hindquarters. A cutting horse can turn out from under you faster than you can blink, and riders have no false notions of macho cowboy pride — they hang onto the saddle horn without hesitation when a good cutting horse goes to work.
Although I have ridden, raised and trained horses for 50-plus years, I’m always interested to see what I can learn on these excursions. As I expected, I picked up a couple of points, but — also as I expected — there were a few things on which I disagreed. For example, the trainer (who does a great job and this is not a criticism — his horses were very well cared for and beautifully trained) commented that he would not buy a horse unless it had perfectly straight legs. For his work that may be true, but my experience is that a horse with the right mind and drive (horse people call it “heart”) can make up for minor conformation faults. If I have to choose between a horse with a good mind and a minor conformation fault or a horse that is physically perfect but stupid or bad tempered, the mind wins every time.
So what makes a good mind? A horse with a good mind is smart, willing, likes people and tries her best, all the time and every time. She’s the bomb-proof kids’ horse who allows a toddler to walk around her legs and under her belly while she keeps her head cocked to watch him. She’s the saddle horse who stands quietly to be mounted in the middle of a corral with cows and calves running and bawling all around her. She’s the drill horse, who, when her rider’s rein breaks in the middle of a four-way crossover when she is running abreast of four other horses, stops dead at the word “whoa.” This last is particularly notable, because a horse that is running with several other horses gets infected with the excitement and may easily bolt if anything happens to the rider’s control.
The other point on which I disagreed with the straight leg comment was that a minor confirmation fault can actually improve a horse’s performance. A horse that is very slightly sickled-hocked naturally has his feet set slightly under him (the picture is exaggerated). This makes him work on his rear end, by keeping most of his weight over his hind legs. Cutting horses are trained to work on their rear ends, so that they can pivot and stop easily. I agree that a horse with bad sickle hocks should be avoided, as it increases the risk of an injury, but this is one of those cases where a slight defect should not disqualify the horse from consideration, in my opinion.
As with a horse race, there are always opinions as to which is the best. But performance — what an animal or person does with her genetic inheritance — is and will always be the deciding factor.