Cutting Horses: How to Get Started |

Cutting Horses: How to Get Started

Cutting is a harmony of movement and a blending of responses between horse and rider. (Credit: AQHA)

Cutting pits a horse against a cow in a battle of wills. Horse and rider must move quietly into a herd of cattle, cut one cow from the herd, drive it to the center of the arena and “hold” it away from the herd. The horse is scored on its ability to keep the cow from returning to the herd, cow sense, attentiveness and courage. There is a 2-1/2-minute time limit.

The ideal picture of a cutting horse is one of polished concentration and split-second response to the action of the cow. Once he lowers his hand, the rider’s role seems diminished, and it can look like the horse is working completely on his own. In reality, that illusion comes from a harmony of movement and a blending of responses between horse and rider.

In this article, we will cover:

Four steps of trying and buying cutting horses.

What a beginner should consider in a cutting horse.

You own your own cutting horse – now what?

Riding a cutting horse.

Cutting rules and resources.

Trying and Buying Cutting Horses

Step 1: Take a cutting horse for a spin.

Maybe you’ve seen cutting and you think it’d be fun to try. Many professional horse trainers offer horses that beginners can use for lessons to test the waters in a new event. The directory of AQHA Professional Horsemen can help connect you with a lesson source.

Step 2: Find the trainer that is right for you.

So, you’re hooked on cutting. Next you’ll need a horse. Finding your first cutting horse isn’t the easiest process for a beginner. That’s why it’s important to work with someone who is knowledgeable in cutting horses, whether it’s a trainer or a friend. As a buyer, you want somebody you have confidence in and who can guide you in the right direction.

Step 3: Take your time finding the right horse.

Don’t get in a hurry and buy the first horse you see. You might have to look at a lot of horses before you find the right one, but if you have someone helping you, they can help spot the right one when it shows up.

Step 4: Ask these questions when considering a cutting horse for purchase.

Ask the person helping you if he is familiar with this horse or seller.

Has the horse had any previous history of lameness?

Does the horse have any bad habits, such as cribbing, biting, bucking, kicking or hauling problems?

What is the horse’s show record and cutting experience?

Has this horse been passed around a lot or had several different owners?

Does the seller guarantee this horse to be sound and is he willing to allow a veterinary check of this horse?

Is there anything else you should know about this horse?

What a Beginner Should Consider in a Cutting Horse

Older is Better: You want is a seasoned horse that is so solid and disciplined in his job that he can almost teach you as much as a trainer can. You want a horse that knows his job, day in and day out, and takes you to the right spot every day. This type of horse will be about 7 years or older.

It is better to find an older horse that has experience rather than trying to get a younger horse and growing together. This is a very difficult task. A beginner needs to learn how to show a horse first, before trying to understand how a young horse thinks. That means showing older horses before climbing on a baby.

These older, seasoned horses will typically cost anywhere from $8,500 to $25,000.

Gelding or Mare: It doesn’t matter whether your choose a gelding or mare for a first cutting horse. The advantage of a gelding is the temperament: Geldings typically are even-tempered and easy-going.

What’s in the Pedigree: Bloodlines don’t play an important role in your first cutting horse. When looking for a horse, the emphasis needs to be placed on the age and experience of the horse, not necessarily what’s in the horse’s pedigree. You’re looking for a horse that you can ride and show, not one that you will later use for breeding.

First Ride: When you have found a prospect, it’s up to you whether you or the person helping you rides the horse first. Keep in mind, usually if the horse doesn’t fit you, he won’t ever fit. Of course, the cattle can have a big bearing on that, also.

Typically, if someone is trying to sell a horse, they are going to have some cattle that are fairly easy to show the horse on. They want you to see what the horse feels like with a pretty good cow. Sometimes you get cattle that won’t cooperate, and you can’t tell anything about the horse. Don’t let this discourage you. If you see something in this horse that you like and the cattle aren’t getting him shown, just reschedule and take another opportunity to look at the horse.

Health and Soundness: If you decide this is the right horse for you, you are strongly encouraged to run him through a thorough veterinarian exam for health and soundness issues. This will be an expense that is the your responsibility.

If a problem is found, it’s then up to you to decide whether you are still willing to purchase the horse. If it is something that you think is manageable, you can’t find another horse at this caliber and you are willing to make the commitment to manage that particular situation, buy the horse. However, if it’s something that you are not sure you can handle, then pass this horse by and continue your search.

Purchasing the Horse: For more help, download the free e-book Buyer’s Guide to an American Quarter Horse. The guide walks you through evaluating conformation, prepurchase exams and how to transfer the horse’s registration certificate into your ownership.

You Own Your Own Cutting Horse – Now What?

Tip 1: Be realistic. Beginners make a lot of mistakes learning how to ride. That’s just the way it is and there’s no shame in it. That first horse is the one that is going to consequently be at the blunt end of those mistakes.

Tip 2: Remember, your beginner horse is a saint. Sometimes you can find a horse that is so honest and, no matter how many mistakes a beginner rider makes, that horse is confident in his job, he doesn’t get to fudging or cheating. However, most horses will.

Tip 3: Don’t go it alone – seek guidance. A trainer will tell you what to do on a horse that isn’t taking you to the right spot. That’s why a beginner needs to get the right supervision. The sooner a beginning rider learns the real fundamentals of cutting, the sooner that individual will be able to help his own horse do a better job of showing.

Riding a Cutting Horse

Keep these body position tips in mind when riding a cutting horse:

Stay centered in the saddle. One hand goes on the reins, the other stays on the saddle horn. Push off the saddle horn, don’t pull yourself forward. Pushing keeps you locked down in the saddle.

Keep your toes out and your legs under you. You don’t want your feet to get out in front. If they’re under you, you can stay balanced.

Stop your horse with your seat. Put your heels down, remove leg pressure and rock your hips back a little bit. Barely pick up your rein hand and push straight down on your hand that’s on top of the horn. That pressure lets your hips rock back a little bit.

Round your lower back. Slump a little bit, like Mom said never to do.

Remember to breathe.

When it comes to working a flag – to simulate a cow – or actual cow work, remember this advice:

The horse is responsible for the stop and turn. You, the rider, are responsible to hit the gas pedal and ride the horse to the stop.

Ride and stop straight. Ride your horse straight across the pen. Don’t lean with your upper body, because that encourages your horse to do the same.

Stop the cow. To stop a cow, your horse’s head has to get ahead of the cow’s head. If you get behind, the cow’s going to dart around you and return to the herd.

Use your legs through the turn – or don’t. Some horses respond well if you encourage them through the turn with the outside leg. Others work best if you hurry them after they complete the turn. Work with your trainer to find the correct style.

Wait on the cow and your horse. When your horse stops, you sit and wait. But when that horse makes his first move, that’s the time to start riding.

Ride hard to the stop. You may have to use both legs to get your horse across the pen to stop the cow.

As you put it all together with a herd of cattle, a cutting run will look like:

Walk quietly up to and through the herd.

Peel off a group of cattle that would fan out in front of you. At a show, you’ll have two helpers in the corner, talking to you and offering advice on the cattle.

Get one cow separated.

Put your rein hand down all the way on the saddle blanket, if you need to. Your other hand goes on the saddle horn, where you push yourself deep into the saddle.

Use your legs to ride to the stops.

Round your lower back to absorb the stop.

Let the cow pull the horse through the turn.

Ride hard to your next stop.

Listen to your herd help for when to quit the cow. To avoid penalties, you need to quit when the cow is disengaged and turning away from you, or when the cow has stopped and is standing still. If you quit the cow when it’s still moving and turning into you, you will incur a hot-quit penalty.

Pick up your rein hand to pull the horse up to quit a cow, then cut another cow.

Aim to work three cows in your 2-1/2-minute cutting run.

Cutting Rules and Resources

The AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations, starting with Rule SHW500, outlines:

How cutting is judged.

Acceptable equipment for cutting.

Rules that govern cutting classes.

As an alliance partner of the National Cutting Horse Association, AQHA works to maintain cutting-class rules that are similar from one association to the next. But before any competition, make sure you are familiar with that organization’s rules.

Penalties to avoid when showing your cutting horse:

Miss or loss of working advantage.

Reining or visibly cueing.

Noise, directed toward cattle.

Toe, foot or stirrup on shoulder of horse.

Holding on too long on a cut.

Working out of position.

Hand too far forward.

Hot quit.

Cattle picked up or scattered.

Second hand on the reins.

Spur in the shoulder.

Horse pawing or biting cattle.

Failure to make a deep cut.

Back fence.

Horse quitting a cow.

Losing a cow.

Changing cattle after a specific commitment.

Failure to separate a single animal after leaving the herd.

For more resources to help you excel in cutting, go to