Horse Training

Cutting Basics

December 16, 2008

Become a cutting horse rider, not just a passenger.

Bill Kirkwood

As the cow turns, your horse should draw back over his hocks and then turn with the cow.

Cutting horse trainer and clinician Bill Kirkwood trains amateur cutters out of his facility in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Follow his three-step system on how to become a rider instead of just a passenger the next time you make a deep cut.

Step 1: Stop

What wins in cutting is controlling the cow in the middle of the pen. The horse should maintain his ground and keep the cow from crossing a straight line in front of the herd. The judges are looking for you to control your cow by getting to its head and stopping hard and deep. Then your horse should wait for the cow to move, and when the cow moves, your horse should draw back and turn with the cow. By learning to maintain consistent body position and using your feet to help your horse, you can make the run instead of being controlled by the cow. And that’s what earns a winning score.

The main thing about having a horse trained to your feet and learning how to use your feet is that when a cow releases (loses interest in) the horse or runs up the pen, you can hold the horse straight. You can still get a deep stop and make the horse wait and draw, all with your feet, before he turns, thus maintaining correct form even when the cow doesn’t have hold of your horse.

Amateur riders should use their feet like the accelerator on a car. You want to be able to squeeze your horse and drive him across the arena like an arrow. Like an accelerator, you never really take your foot off unless you need to stop and turn quickly to hold a bad cow. You control the horse by varying the pressure of your feet, and the horse responds to what you’re asking. When you get that, you’re controlling your horse and, more importantly, you’re controlling your run. You ask the horse to stop by keeping your body straight, sitting deep in the saddle and lessening the pressure of your legs. By using your legs, you’re telling your horse to stay straight and wait on that cow until it commits to turning and heading back across the arena.

How do you spot a good cutting horse? Start with good conformation. Learn the basics with AQHA’s FREE American Quarter Horse Conformation Standards report.

Step 2: Draw

To make a good turn, a horse needs to stop deep, draw back on his hocks and then turn with the cow. Most horses don’t want to do any more than they have to do, especially an older, experienced horse that knows you’re not going to school him in the show pen. To compensate for that, when you practice, you need to overemphasize the horse drawing back with the cow before you allow the horse to turn. After you’ve stopped the cow, hold the horse with your feet and ask the horse to wait on that cow. When the cow turns, back the horse two or three steps before letting the horse turn around.

With your hand down during competition, your horse isn’t going to back three steps. He is going to hit that stop, draw back and turn around. And that’s exactly what you want.

Step 3: Turn

Once your horse is stopping with the cow and drawing back on his hocks, it’s the rider’s job to make sure the horse makes the kind of turn that keeps him in position and holds the cow away from the herd. When you have your feet on the horse, he needs to learn to wait. When you take your cow-side foot away, the horse can come on through that turn.

As the cow stops, I teach my amateurs to hold the horse with both legs. You hold the horse’s shoulder up with your cow-side foot, and you hold his hip in with your herd-side leg. As the cow turns, release the cow-side foot. The pressure stays about the same with your herd-side leg, and three-quarters of the way through the turn, you need to let the horse find your released leg, which is now on the herd side. Then, using both feet, make sure you maintain a straight line across the arena.

Putting It Together

At its core, cutting is very simple: separate one cow from a herd, drive it to the middle of the arena and hold it there. A lot of people enjoy the adrenaline rush of having the horse jump back and forth so much that they forget to get deep in the stop, draw and then go with the cow. By learning your horse and teaching him to respond to your feet, you can turn a good run into a winning run and keep a mediocre run from turning into a disaster.

Understand the basics of horse conformation. AQHA’s helpful, FREE American Quarter Horse Conformation Standards report is perfect for any horse enthusiast who’s shopping for a new horse, interested in judging or simply wanting to learn more about their favorite animal.

Body Position

You can help your horse by maintaining a straight, correct body position throughout your run. Many riders cause a whole new set of problems by leaning or by being too far forward or too far back. Try to relax, keep your shoulders square and sit deep in the saddle. If you’re having trouble staying square, cut with your rein hand on the pommel alongside the horn instead of putting it down on the horse’s neck.

Or when you are schooling at home, try putting both hands down on the horse’s neck. In that position, your shoulders are even, and you take a lot of unconscious tension from your body that might be making it more difficult for your horse to maintain correct form. Switching the reins to your opposite hand can also help solve a lot of problems, particularly when your horse is not the same on both ends. Work on your body position and your riding so that you help your horse instead of making it more difficult for him.