Cutting is a classic rodeo event that tests the cowboy skill of isolating one animal of a herd from the rest by directing it with the movements of the horse.


Ranchers in the old West of America drove cattle across great expanses of land. The cowboys required well-trained horses to cut into the herds of cattle and separate the cows. Cows would need to be separated for a number of reasons including vaccinating, branding and sorting.

Back in the old West, when ranches were spread far and wide, ranch hands would hold informal competitions when they met. The ranch hands would race each other in the different skills associated with working a ranch. These competitions eventually began to be more organized and modern rodeo was born. Cutting became an official sport in 1946, with the formation of the National Cutting Horse Association.

About Cutting

Typically, a cutting competition will begin with a herd of cattle that includes 25-30 animals. Once the timed competition begins, the rider will lead to horse to separate one of the animals. At that point, the rider will loosen the grip on the reins so that the horse has more control. The horse’s skill in keeping the cow away from the herd is showcased. Typically, the rider will separate 3 to 4 cows in a 2 and a half minute run.

While all of the separating of the herd is done by one rider, there are four other mounted cowboys assisting the rider. Two of the riders help to gold the herd together. The herd holders are mounted on either side of the herd to maintain calm and to make sure the cows are remaining relatively still. The other mounted assistants are called turn-back riders. The job of the turn-back riders is to drive the cow back to the cutter if the cow attempts to run way. The four helpers assist the cutting horse, but are not scored as part of the competition.

In order to cut a cow from the herd, the rider will walk into the herd slowly and calmly. The horse will then direct one cow further and further away from the others until it is fully separated from the herd. Cows are separated from the herd one by one. The horse can be guided with leg pressure once the cow is separated but that is all. The horse ought to be able to keep the cow from returning to the herd without any visible aids or cues.


Cutting horse is scored on a scale from 60 to 80, with 60 being the lowest attainable score and 80 the highest. At the outset of the competition, most cutting horses begin with a score of 70 points, which is an average score. If the cutting horse performs above average, more points will be added. If the cutting horse makes mistakes or does not perform well, points are subtracted.

Points are added to the cutting work for a number of reasons. The rider and horse are judged on their ability to slowly and quietly move in to the herd and separating a cow with skill. Once the cow is out of the herd, judging is based on the horse’s ability both in its intellectual strategy and athletic prowess. Points are deducted if the rider uses the reins or other obvious aids while the horse is keeping the cow from returning to the herd.

Cutting Horses

The horses used in cutting are generally stock horses, particularly quarter horses but other stock horses are well-suited to cutting. Stock horses were originally used on the ranches of the old West because they are generally fast and athletic, agile and strong. The most important aspect of cutting horses is intelligence. Because the rider does not use the reins to control the horse in herding the cattle, the horse must behave instinctively. Stock horses have what is commonly called “cow sense” which is an understanding of how to herd cattle in the proper direction and how to use its body to direct the movements of the cow.

Quarter horses are very quick and are named after their ability to outrun other horse breeds in a quarter mile race. The quarter horse as a strong and compact build with muscled hindquarters. Quarter horses are generally 14 to 16hh. Generally, horses that are considered good cutters are 15.1 hands high or less. Horses that are much taller are generally not as effective at cutting.

Cutting Tack and Equipment

The tack and equipment used in cutting is western style rodeo tack. Riders use western saddles, which generally have heavy, wooden stirrups. The western saddle also has a horn, which the rider sometimes grips in cutting. Riding boots in western rodeo are cowboy boots, which have a high heel for better grip the stirrups.

Western rodeo uses a number of different bits, but all bits must be humane. Cutting cowboys use long, split reins, which must be held loosely so the horse can work.

In most rodeo competitions, western attire is required. Cowboys wear crisp, nice blue jeans with a nice, long-sleeve collared shirt. Riders may choose to wear chaps if they want, but they are not required. Riders must always wear a cowboy hat, made of either straw or felt, although felt is considered more formal and is not likely to fall off the riders head. Silver and turquoise have often been used to decorate western equipment for shows. Saddles often have leather carving and silver studs. The dress aspect is incorporated in presentation, and while the appearance may not be scored directly, a good presentation is always a good start for the judges.

Cutting horses is a fast-paced and exciting sport. The sport showcases the athletic skills of the horse and the relationship between horse and rider that is essential for success in any equestrian discipline. Cutting horses are intelligent, agile and even-tempered, making them perfectly skilled for the sport. While ranches have decreased and modern technologies have made many skills from the west few and far between, rodeos have allowed the grit, pure skill and excitement of the western skills to live on.

Veterinary Surgeon, London at Blue Cross UK | + posts

A London based Veterinary surgeon, Sanja is also an avid writer and pet advocate.