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What is a Cutting Horse? History, Breeds & What Makes a Good One

What is a Cutting Horse? History, Breeds & What Makes a Good One

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There are many different equestrian disciplines in both English and western styles of riding. One of the most unique western disciplines is cutting.

So, just what is a cutting horse?

A cutting horse is a horse that has been trained to separate single cows from a herd and prevent them from returning. Cutting has evolved from being a ranching necessity to a competitive equestrian sport.

What Breed of Horses are Cutting Horses?

Most cutting horses are Quarter horses or stock horse breeds such as Paints or Appaloosas. However, any breed of horse can be a cutting horse.

Though stock horse breeds tend to dominate the cutting world, Arabians also excel at the sport, and many Arabian shows will have cutting classes.

Other breeds to compete in cutting competitions include Morgans, Mustangs, and Australian Stock Horses.

What Makes a Good Cutting Horse?

Cowboy riding a cutting horse and herding a cow in a round pen
Dale A Stork /

A good cutting horse is athletic, agile, confident, bold, and possesses a good cow sense. In addition, the horse should have a good temperament and be highly trainable.

Cutting horses should confidently work around cattle, not backing down unless told so. They should be fluid movers, with the ability to perform good slides, spins, and stops.

No matter the breed, cutting horses should have good conformation, be willing to please, and be responsive to cues.

How Much is a Good Cutting Horse Worth?

The world of cutting horse competitions is highly competitive, and a good cutting horse can sell for top dollar. On average, a cutting horse will sell for $8,500 to $45,000.

Some of the best cutting horses can easily sell for $50,000 to $100,000 or more. In 2020, a two-year-old sorrel Quarter horse filly sold for $1,050,000 at the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity Sales, setting a record.

How Long Does It Take To Train A Cutting Horse?

In general, it will take at least 12 to 18 months to train a cutting horse. Some horses pick up the sport naturally, whereas others take more time.

There are several factors that can determine how long it will take to train a cutting horse, including if the horse has any previous training.

After training, a cutting horse will generally need six to eight months of show experience to become solid. It can take a couple of years for horses to really excel in the sport.

History of Cutting

Back in the 1800s, cutting cattle was a regular part of life on ranches. Cowboys would ride horses that possessed a ‘cow sense’ as these horses could quickly and efficiently separate cows in round-ups.

In 1889, the first advertised cutting contest was held at the Cowboy Reunion in Haskell, Texas. Sam Graves with his 22-year-old horse Old Hub won the competition out of 11 entries, taking home $150.

Man riding a cutting horse
Holly Kuchera /

In 1919, the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth in Texas hosted the first recorded arena cutting. From there, the sport became an annual addition to the rodeo.

Cutting competitions continued to grow in popularity all across America. In 1946, 13 cutting horse owners met at Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show to establish a standard for cutting competitions. They formed the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA), which now has over 15,000 members across 50 states and 20 countries.

Cutting Competitions

Cutting horse competitions are popular all throughout America, as well as in other countries. The NCHA offers $9,000,000 in prize money every year.

In a cutting competition, a horse and rider have 2.5 minutes to perform a run. A contestant must make at least two cuts from the herd during a run. One of the cuts must be a cut from deep inside the herd while the other(s) can come from the edges.

After the selected cow has been separated, the horse and rider must prevent the cow from returning to the herd. At that point, the rider will put their rein hand down, and it becomes almost entirely up to the horse, with the exception of allowable leg cues.

During the competition, a rider will be assisted by four helpers. Two riders two are designated as turnback riders, who prevent the cattle from running off to the back of the arena.

The other two riders are herd holders that keep the cattle bunched together while also preventing cattle from wandering into the work area.

Judges score a run on a scale from 60 to 80, with penalties given for many things. For example, five points are taken off if the horse ‘loses the cow’ and it returns to the herd. In addition, penalties are given if a rider fails to make a deep cut.

Another common penalty is when a horse quits working before a cow does, which is known as a hot quit.

Common divisions in cutting include professional, amateur, youth, and non-pro. During a competition, judges will look for things such as confidence, clean cuts, split-second responses, and polished performances.