Cutting horses have been doing their job without fanfare from the earliest days of European settlement in North America. “Cutting” is the act of separating a cow from the herd for vaccinating, castrating, and sorting. “Cutting horses” are usually Quarter horses that have been trained and selectively bred (much like sheep dogs) to instictavely separate a single cow from a herd and keep it seperated. The best horses would do the job with only minimum input from the rider. Like the origin of many sports, riders would brag to each other about who had the best horse and presto-competition was born.
In the event, the horse and rider select and separate a cow (typically a steer or heifer) out of a small group. The cow then tries to return to its herd; the rider loosens the reins (“puts his hand down” in the parlance) and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the cow separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A contestant has 2 ½ minutes to show the horse; typically three cows are cut during a run, although working only two cows is acceptable. A judge awards points to the cutter based on a scale that ranges from 60 to 80, with 70 being considered average.
In 1946 the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) was formed, and this has been the governing orginiozation for the sport. In 1972 the NCHA was formed in Australia and is an affiliate of the American National Cutting Horse Association. Cutting is one of the fastest growing equine sports in the world. In 2006, the contestants at the United States NCHA Futurity competed for more than $3.7 million—over a hundred times the offering of the first year. Total purses at NCHA-approved shows now exceed $39 million annually, not including prize money distributed at Australian Cutting Horse Association, American Cutting Horse Association, single-breed shows, or European and Canadian events.
A good example of the popularity of the sport is its ability to attract riders (and fans) from areas of the country where few horse ranches exist. Thomas H. Bailey, 73 years old, didn’t do much horse riding when he worked on Wall Street. Bailey is an urban cowboy who is now competing at the elite levels of the sport. Bailey has now earned nearly $90,000, not from trading but from riding.
“Rodeo Drive: Rich Urban Cowboys on Fine Horses Best Ranch Hands” . WSJ 16, December 2010