Wednesday, January 13, 2010


by Laura Crum

Last week I did a post on the reasons I gave up showing horses and looking back on it I find it very incomplete. I mentioned the political aspect of it as a judged event and the cost. These things did have a lot to do with why I quit, but there were other reasons, too.

Kate mentioned seeing too many “servicably sound” horses in her hunter/jumper world, and I had to agree. Competition of all sorts in the horse world seems to result in so many horses pushed to keep working despite being sore, and then thrown away like used sporting equipment when they just can’t go any more. I think all of us have seen this and been affected by it. Some of us quit competing because we don’t want to be around it any more or support it in any way. However, I didn’t get to that place until I quit competing at team roping, the last competitive event I practiced.

Today I want to revisit cutting, particularly the last cutting where I competed. This would be our local county fair, twenty years ago this past fall. My horse, Gunner, was nine, and I had been competing on him at cuttings since he was four. I'd gotten a little jaded on the political element and the whole horse trainer shtick (see my post “Once Upon A Time”), and was starting to go team roping and liking it. But I decided to show Gunner one more time at the fair. I didn’t know it would be my last show, but I wondered.

In order to get ready for the cutting I practiced a bit and then hauled my horse over to a friend of mine, who was a local trainer.

“I want you to watch me cut a cow and tell me what you see,” I said. “I want to know what I should work on.”

So I walked Gunner into the herd and cut a cow. The cow tried him hard and Gunner worked well. Clean and crisp, not too long or too short, he was spot on; I never had to touch his face; he held that tough cow right in the middle and never missed a beat. I was very proud of him. When the cow turned away I touched Gunner’s withers to let him know we were done and walked back out of the herd and said to Bob, “Well?”

“He did fine,” he said.

Now even for trainer speak that was pretty laconic. I’m not particularly patient with trainer speak, anyway.“What do you mean he did fine? Is he as good as the horses that win?”

Bob shrugged.

“How is he different? What are they doing he isn’t doing?"

Bob shrugged again. “They’re a little fancier. He’s not doing anything wrong. They’re just flashier.”

Well, OK then. I knew what he meant. I was down to the root problem. There were two reasons that Gunner was not as fancy as the horses that won a lot. One was that he was big for a cutter. Gunner was 15.3, with good solid bone. He probably weighed 1200. Most successful cutting horses are smaller and lighter, which makes it easier for them to be quick and catty. I still remembered the initial reaction of the first cutting trainer I worked for when I unloaded Gunner from my trailer. This guy took one look at the horse, shrugged, and said, “Sell him and get another one.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “You haven’t even seen him work. He’s a nice horse.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “You want one that’s little and cute and catty. He’s too big. He looks like a rope horse.”

However, Gunner really was a good horse. He was quick and cowy and moved well and he had a lot of intensity and snap. He made a pretty darn good cutter. And now we came to problem number two, and it was the real stopper.

I had trained Gunner to be an effective cutter. What I had not done was train him to be flashy. So, what did this mean?

In the cutting horse world at that time, the horses that won regularly did a lot of “extra stuff”. If a cow moved slowly to the left and then paused, these horses did not mirror the cow, moving to the left and pausing, as I had taught Gunner to do. Nope. These horses did a whole lot more. They jumped to the left, to the right, back to the middle, pattered their front feet and back to the left, even if the cow was just hesitating there, doing nothing much. It was very flashy.
So what’s wrong with that, you ask. That’s what’s cool about cutting horses, all those fancy moves. Well, yeah. And again, not so much. Because these horses weren’t dancing around because they wanted to, nor was there much point in it. They were dancing like this because they had been spurred good and hard, over and over again, and they knew better than to simply mirror the cow and do what a cutting horse is supposed to do. No, they needed to move and dance constantly, and be “over the top” in every way, or they’d be punished.

Don’t get me wrong. Good cowhorses do some of this “dancing” on their own, because they love to work cows. Gunner did it, to some degree. It is part of what’s cool about cutters and all cowhorses. But these winning horses did it every time a cow slowed down enough to let them, and I knew very few (well, I personally didn’t know any) who were not taught to do this with an awful lot of spur.

I’m not saying I didn’t spur Gunner to teach him to be a cutter. I did. I don’t know anyone who trains cutting horses and never uses spurs. But I wasn’t willing to spur him over and over again when, by my lights, he was doing his job correctly, holding his cow, moving crisply, mirroring the cow’s every move, and working exactly as I had taught him to work. I wasn’t willing to torture him to make him fancier.

I also wasn’t willing to sell him and get one who was more the right “type”. At that time, I could have sold Gunner for a lot of money (by my standards, anyway). Even though he wasn’t ultra fancy, he was a solid, reliable cutting horse who was completely gentle and sound and he would pack anyone. Many trainers looked at him and thought they could “tune him up” and he’d be perfect for their beginning non-pro. I was offered ten thousand for him several times, which was a good price for an entry level cutting horse (at that time).

But I didn’t want to sell Gunner. I’d trained him myself, and I was proud of him. More than that, I loved him. I wasn’t going to dump him and get something I could win more on. And that was that.

As for the option of letting an accomplished trainer keep Gunner in training and make him flashier, well, I knew just what that would entail. I’d been around long enough to be sure that I didn’t want anyone else beating up my good horse. So many “horse stories” look very pretty when you see the horse placing at the big show with rider and trainer grinning at each other. Its only when you know the true underpinnings of such a story, all the abuse dealt out to horses and all the hatefulness between people, that you realize that the fairytale fa├žade that’s presented is a very long way from reality. Unfortunately abusive treatment of horses, and trainers who start out charming and humble only to reveal themselves as passive aggressive sociopaths only interested in protecting their fragile egos—this is pretty much a routine tale in the professional horse business. Such trainers are often talented at training and winning—its compassion towards horses and forgiveness towards people that’s lacking. I’d learned enough by now to want nothing to do with all that. Also, for me, part of the point was that I wanted to be the one riding, training, and showing my horse. I didn’t own a horse for someone else to be riding him. Let alone that I couldn’t afford to keep Gunner in training, I had no interest in that idea.

I left Bob’s place feeling that I’d made a pretty nice horse and if I couldn’t succeed under the system, well, I’d leave that system behind.

So, I showed Gunner at the fair, feeling it would be my last show. It wasn’t a big class, maybe fifteen horses. I drew up fourth. Watching the first three go, I saw right away that the whole pen of cattle seemed to be runners. Nobody was able to cut some nice little pup that set up in the center and allowed their horse to “play”. Nope. Every cow wanted to run hard, driving across the pen in a strong attempt to get back to the herd.

This is actually the most challenging type of cow for a horse to hold, and, unfortunately, a horse doesn’t usually get marked for doing a good job of it. Judges wanted to see a cow set up in the middle and a horse get “fancy”. Running cattle were a big negative.

However, Gunner was quite good with tough cattle. He could run and stop and he stayed honest. When my turn came, I cut some cattle that ran (I couldn’t find a pup either) and Gunner held them really well. I didn’t make any mistakes. It was a solid go, but not very flashy. As I rode out, Bob, who was turning back for me, said, “Your horse ran across the pen real well.”

I knew just what he meant. We’d done a workmanlike job, but it wasn’t by any means a spectacular run. The judge marked me a 71, which was a fair mark for what I’d done.

I led Gunner away from the ring, feeling proud of him for a job well done, and mildly disgusted with the whole deal. Cuttings are, in case you don’t know, a long drawn out business, with lots of warm up and time spent settling the herd, and all of it, except one’s own run, and the occasional moments when one’s competition is doing something cool, is about like watching paint dry. I was pretty jaded by this time, as I said in my last post. I didn’t even watch the rest of the class.
I unsaddled Gunner and brushed him, completely sure that some of my fancy competition would outscore me. I hadn’t marked very high. I couldn’t hear the loudspeaker from where I was, so I had no idea how things were going.

It was only when a friend came dashing up to my trailer saying, “They’re looking for you,” that I found out.

I’d won the class. Apparently the fancy horses hadn’t been able to cut any easy cattle either, and everybody had either lost a cow and/or gotten out of shape. My 71 was the highest score.

Back I went, leading Gunner, to get my silver buckle and have my photo taken. It wasn’t the biggest show I ever won, or the highest score I ever marked, or my best run. Not even close. It was, however, my last show, and our local county fair, and for some reason it remains one of my favorite memories. I still have the buckle and the photo, which remind me of that happy moment. In an odd way, the fact that I won that last cutting seemed to validate all the time and money I’d spent on training Gunner to be a cutting horse.

I never regretted giving up cutting. I trained Gunner to be a team roping head horse and roped on him until he was fourteen. At fifteen I retired him to the pasture, and he is living a happy turned out life, sound, if peggy, at thirty years old this spring. He is still my horse, and I still love him and take care of him.

As for me, I competed at team roping for almost ten years, first on Gunner, and then on Flanigan, until the point where I realized I simply did not care about winning. I enjoyed roping, but I had gotten completely to the end of my tolerance for seeing horses crippled and people be unkind to each other, all in the interests of winning. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people were good to their horses and nice to each other, but plenty were not. At the end of my team roping career I would get to a roping and find myself fervently praying, “Don’t let any horses or people or cattle get hurt (yes, I cared about the cattle—so laugh at me), and let whoever needs to win, win.” It didn’t take too long after that for me to be sure I never wanted to see another horse get hurt again in pursuit of the almighty win. I never wanted to watch some poor mostly lame critter struggle on or see someone beat up a horse who had somehow failed to please the rider (though often the fault lay with the rider rather than the horse). All because people wanted to win. I didn’t even want to be around it.

For those of you who read this blog and who like to compete in some horse discipline, I am not suggesting that you don’t treat your horses well. It is totally possible to treat your horse well and compete on him, too—I know that. You cannot change the behavior of those around you, but you can decide what you yourself will do and not do. This blog post (and my previous post “Once Upon A Time”) were suggested to me by reading some blogs where it seemed to me that winning was glorified a bit and the path by which that win was achieved was not portrayed very honestly. When horses get trashed and there is much hatefulness between people along the way, winning isn’t worth it—not in my opinion.

The other reason I wanted to address this subject is that I think it is truly worth bringing up and talking about. I competed for many years and for a lot of that time I was really enjoying myself. Training my horse, improving, testing myself…all this meant a lot to me. When I got to the place where I was ready to leave it behind, well, I had got to that place, as this blog describes. One of my best friends, a woman who is a much more competitive team roper than I ever was, recently got to the same place and gave up competition. She and I trail ride together and we have a talked a lot (as you might imagine) about this process of letting go of the need to compete and why we needed to leave that world and how it has been for us. I don’t mean to suggest that I know some single answer that is right for all horse people. I just know that my friend and I have discussed this subject a lot lately as we mosey down the trail, and it is much on my mind.

Competition, and the desire to win, is driven by several factors. Money is one of them, and I haven’t even touched on this. But people who are in the horse business to make money need to win. To prove their stallion, or their training barn...etc. The need to make mony fuels the drive to win, in many cases. And a lot of abuse springs from this root. But many of us compete in order to prove ourselves…we’re not in it to make money. We train, and try to improve, and then compete to test ourselves. And in some cases this testing and proving of oneself can become an intense ego driven need to win that results in the sort of abuse that I have described. In the discussion following my last blog post several people, including Terri and stillearning, talked about what we can do to change this. I freely admit that I have no idea, though Terri had some great suggestions. Its true that I have just opted out, and I don’t know if this is an honorable solution or not. The bottom line is that I couldn’t stand to be around it any more.

I do know that horses and people get hurt trail riding, too. But in my experience the pressure we put on ourselves and our horses in the interests of competition is far more likely to lead to injury and breakdown than a relaxed ride “outside”, where winning is not a factor. So now I trail ride in the hills and on the beach with my son and my friends. And I visit Gunner in his pasture and pet him and tell him what a good horse he is. I’m having just as much fun as I did when I was cutting and team roping, somewhat to my own surprise.

That’s what I call a happy ending.

Feel free to tell me I’m nuts and competition is a good thing. My team roping friends who are still out there trying to win tell me this all the time. Cheers--Laura


Anonymous said...

I used to compete - a lot - in the hunter/jumper world. I'm sorry to hear the specifics of the abuses that go on in the cutting world. It's great that you were able to win riding honestly and treating your horse well - there are other like you, and me, out there in all the competitive horse arenas.

But I did get tired of seeing the abuses in training and at the shows. It seems when competition and money enters into it, many people seem to lose their moral compasses and winning becomes the only thing that is important. And if winning is all that matters, then abuse of horses, and yes of people too (verbal abuse was rampant in my h/j world), and treating horses like sports equipment to be used until broken and then discarded, comes easily to many people. It's very sad.

I also hate the artificiality of the disciplines - they're not about doing real jobs - it's the flash and the fancy that are rewarded. I'm intrigued by ranch horse competitions that reward versatility. I don't know too much about them but the premise seems more honest to me.

lopinon4 said...

Friggin well said, my equine-related cyber friend, friggin well said!

lopinon4 said...

On that note, I'm proud to be throwing in the towel with showing on the open level. My pleasure horse won't be a "pleasure" to me if I train him to those standards. So, I'll gladly give my money to the state parks for allowing me to use the trails instead of putting more and more money into a system that is poisoning itself.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Just like you point out, not all cutting horse people are hard on their horses. Some were great people who loved their horses and took care of them and retired them when they were done with their working lives--just like I did Gunner. But the use and discard sort were pretty rampant--just as they seem to be in all competitive horse disciplines. Thus my blog post--sorry it was such a lengthy rant.

Thank you lopinon4--your response made me smile. How is your horse doing? Looking sound, I hope. I've been thinking about you and hoping things were going the right way.

Laura Crum said...

And Kate--ranch versatility sounds like a great class--and I've heard its growing in popularity. It wasn't around when I was showing--more's the pity. Perhaps this sounds mean spirited, but I have to say, if it is popular, and big name trainers get involved, I'd guess it will just end up like all the other horseshow disciplines I've been involved with. We can always hope not, of course.

Susan said...

Well said. I've been back and forth between English and Western riding. In college I went back to English after taking all the riding classes that Montana State University had, which weren't many at that time (and all Western). For the most part I enjoyed them, which was my intention, since I got to haul my horse to a heated arena in the winter. But I liked that the English people were more inclined to create a partnership with their horses as opposed to the outdated concept of conquer and intimidate.

If I ever compete again, it will be for my personal growth. I would like to be able to ride my horse completely focused on the job at hand, and have the fact that I'm being watched and judged be inconsequential. I have a history of letting people criticize me and folding under the pressure, so that would be a huge accomplishment.

As for the way people treat their horses, I have never understood why people ride into the cutting pen and feel the need to tune on their horses. They gouge them with spurs and as soon as the horse jumps forward s/he gets jerked in the mouth. Huh? And they wonder why the horse doesn't do his/her best. Maybe I could set an example.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, I spent some years with the cutters, and I know the basic principles behind the "tuning" and could explain them. There is a method to it...its not purposeless torture. However, many, many people overdo it (both ignorant folks and experienced folks who should know better) and their horse performs much less well than he would have done if he hadn't been "tuned up". A lot of smart people don't tune a horse up much to speak of at a show. However this doesn't mean that they didn't spur him a whole lot the day before.

As for setting an example, I once showed cutting horses with/against Tom Dorrance's wife. Her mare worked in a lovely way and I really admired her. I can't recall seeing her ever spur that horse. She won at the lower levels but not at the upper levels...for the same reasons I explained in my blog post. Without that extra spurring to make a horse extra fancy and flashy, its really hard to be competive at the higher levels. I do believe some horses come by it naturally--yes. Most horses, however, (at least in my day--twenty years ago) were spurred a whole heck of a lot to accomplish this flashiness. I'm guessing that some people do still train their horses to be good cutters and show them to please themselves and don't worry about how they place. And its surely a legitimate goal. Cutting a cow on a good horse is great fun...I'd be the last to deny that. If Gunner were younger, I'd probbly still cut just for fun..though I doubt I'd go to any competitions. Still, I like your concept of showing and regarding the judging as inconsequential. That's what I tried to do, too. It was the abuse going on around me that burned me out.

KB said...

Reading all of this makes me glad to be "just a trail rider". The people are nice, the horses are sound or they stay home, and the only goal of the day is to have fun. It's paradise, really.

Laura Crum said...

KB--I came to the same conclusion. Funny how many of us get to that place.

One of the things that freaked me out about competition is how people just dumped their old horse when they were done with him and wanted to move onto something new, something they thought they'd have more fun competing on--I think I'll do a post on that subject next. Does anybody have any sense for whether most trail riders retire their old horses when they can't go any more? I'm curious.

KB said...

Most of my horse friends have room to retire their older horses to pasture pet status. That's the ideal solution, I guess. I'm hoping my wonderful 13-year-old TB mare has 15 more years of trail riding in her, and she'll always have a home here in my front pasture. I purchased her bred (rookie mistake that came out okay in the end), so I have a built-in back up horse. We have leased my son's older pony to a friend with a smaller child, but when she is done creating trail riders, she'll come back here to retire as well. It seems that trail riding and at-home horsekeeping creates a bond that is about more than the ride, and as a result outlasts a horse's "usefulness".

Laura Crum said...

KB--That's exactly what was going through my mind. Something about the fact that one isn't trying to "win" anything allows a different kind of bond to form and one doesn't even consider not keeping and retiring an old horse when his working life is done. I also agree with you that at-home horsekeeping contributes to this bond. Thank you--that was well said, and it was just what I was wondering about.