Cutting Competition - From Then to Now
It is unlikely that those 19th century American cowboys would have imagined that something so much a part of their every day job would become one of the world's most popular equine sports. But each year, thousands of cutting events--from Austin to Australia--attract riders aged eight to eighty. But how did the sport evolve into its modern day form?
The first advertised cutting contest was held at the 1898 Cowboy Reunion in Haskell, Texas. Arriving by horseback, wagon or hack (since the nearest railroad was 50 miles away) over 15,000 people attended - lured by ads in the Dallas News and the Kansas City Star. The contest offered a prize of $150, a substantial sum in those days, and 11 riders entered. Sam Graves brought Old Hub, a 22 year old horse whose fans swore could work blindfolded and without a bridle, out of retirement just for this one event. Graves fed Old Hub oat mash and prairie hay, tied him to the back of a hack and led him all the way to Haskell. Little did Graves know that the two day journey would be a trip into the history books. After the pair won, Graves set aside half of the winnings to ensure Old Hub had the best of care for the rest of his days.
In 1919, the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas became he first recorded arena cutting - when they added a cutting horse exhibition to the annual rodeo. After just one year, cutting became a competitive event. And by 1946, there were so many cutting horse contests being held, under so many different sets of conditions and rules, that a group of 13 cutting horse owners met at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show and decided to form an association to establish standard rules and procedures for holding such competition.
One of the founders, Ray Smyth, recalled that "When the meeting broke up, we had formed what we thought would be more or less a local cutting horse association. Someone remarked that with luck, we might even get as many as 50 members by another year." Later, during a meeting in Mineral Wells, Texas, they incorporated the newly formed association. Pat Dalton suggested the name ‘National Cutting Horse Association,' because it looked as though it had the potential to grow into something big. Smyth also recalls that secretary-treasurer Volney Hildreth guarded the association's resources "with a big stick. If we wanted anything that cost money, Volney would tell us to get enough new members to pay for it."
The first approved NCHA show was held in Dublin, Texas, in the fall of 1946.
By 1963, the association recorded the results of 727 events, of which 504 were recognized as NCHA championship events. In those days, cutters vied for a piece of $404,183 in prize money. That included $23,225 paid out at that year's NCHA Futurity - an event limited to 3-year-old horses. In the early days of cutting, there was only one class, what would be
called the Open today. It took a lot of courage for a greenhorn to go up
against the born-in-the-saddle cowhands who dominated the competition. But as
the popularity of cutting grew, a new, progressive class structure evolved
which gave less experienced riders a chance to compete—and win—against their
As big cattle outfits gave way to small farms and ranches in the twentieth century, the once indispensable tool of the trade, the cow horse, was being replaced by pickup trucks and squeeze chutes. Few large ranches still rounded up cattle the old-fashioned way and the cutting horse was fast becoming obsolete. The NCHA has been instrumental in giving the cutting horse continued purpose and new life in a modern world.
While you still see unregistered ranch geldings like Old Paint, a brown
and white horse of unknown parentage that founder Ray Smyth bought for $40 at Weatherford
trade days, and descendants of big ranch breeding programs like the world famous King Ranch's remuda of copper-colored horses descended from the Old
Sorrel, Burnett's Triangle Ranch's Yellow Jacket horses, with golden coats and black manes and tails,
and the Pitchfork Outfit's Grey Badger sired cast-iron cow ponies, the breeding of cutting horses has also evolved. Today's sires' offspring account for tens of millions of dollars in earnings.
2021 Futurity contestants are shooting for a piece of the more than $3 million purse - more than a hundred times the offering of that first year. Total purses at NCHA-approved shows now exceed $39 million annually.
Yet for many, cutting's greatest rewards are intangible. The bond between people and horses that makes the sport so special, also links it to the sweat and dust of the Old West, and sets it apart from all other events.
"The people who brought cutting from the open range to the arena, and turned the skills of the cowman and cowboy into the contest, were real sports," said Buster Welch, a legendary cutting champion. "That fine sportsmanship is still alive and well in cutting today."