Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Life With Horses--Part Four

                                               by Laura Crum

            So at this point I had two horses-- my ranch horse, Burt, and my expensive new three year old colt, Gunner. I was twenty-six years old and working for minimum wage for a well known reined cowhorse trainer, and I could barely afford to own one horse, let alone two. But the trainer was so impressed with Gunner that he offered to board and train the colt for free if I would let him show the horse. That’s how talented Gunner was.
            There was just one slight problem with this program. And it was that I could not bear to let the trainer torture Gunner.
            I had seen first hand how hard the three year olds were pushed to make them competitive at the Snaffle Bit Futurity and I didn’t want to do this to my colt. I had about had a bellyful of seeing horses pushed too hard in order to win…on all fronts.
            So in a fit of anger, sensible or not, I quit the trainer and took Gunner home—to get him ready to show at the Snaffle Bit Futurity all by myself.
            This was a pretty unrealistic concept. I had never shown at the Snaffle Bit before and I had never trained a horse to be a successful reined cowhorse. But I had ridden for the big time cowhorse trainer for all of a year, and I thought I knew enough. Remember, I was twenty-six years old.
            So I loaned Burt to a ranching family that I knew, and I spent all my time and all my money training Gunner. I practiced with my colt at our family ranch. Here we are, cutting cattle.

            I took lessons from trainers as I could afford it. And I rode Gunner every single day (poor thing). He was a really talented horse and I made a lot of progress with him. But he was still a homemade horse and I was very green at showing. Virtually every other non-pro at the Snaffle Bit Futurity was on a professionally trained horse and had many more years of experience than I had. So I’m actually proud to say that we placed in the non-pro and the ladies division. I didn’t win enough to earn back my entry fees and I made some dumb mistakes, but overall we did OK. However, the whole experience really soured me on the reined cowhorse business.
It was just too hard on the horses and too political, and I thought (I believe rightly) that I wasn’t ever going to be much of showman, especially in the reining part of the contest. If I didn’t have a cow to focus on, I wasn’t happy. So I took up cutting instead, and began hauling Gunner to cutting competitions.
By this time I was working for a well known cutting horse trainer, and I knew quite a bit more about training a horse to be a cutting horse than I had known about training one to be a reined cowhorse. I hauled Gunner to all the small local cuttings that I could. Sometimes we did pretty well. But almost every time I went to a larger show we bombed.
Obviously the competition was tougher. But there was something else, too. Whenever I pulled into the parking lot of one of these bigger shows, I was the ONLY half-ton pickup towing a two-horse trailer in the entire parking lot (older pickup with a shabby old two horse trailer, at that). I am not kidding. Every other rig was a shiny dually towing an equally shiny multi-horse trailer, many with living quarters. By which you can see the difference between my degree of wealth and that of the other participants.
Cutting is a rich man’s sport. There are a number of reasons for this. Cutting horses are expensive, cattle are expensive, entries at a cutting are expensive. But there’s more to it than that. Cutting is one of the few horse sports where you really CAN buy your way in. A rich man can buy a well-trained cutting horse, he can keep it in training with a good cutting horse trainer, he can take the occasional lesson, and he can climb on that horse at a show and have his trainer coach him through a run…and he can win the class. Unlike the reined cowhorse world, you can be a pretty poor rider (by which I mean you could never survive going down the fence or manage to cue a horse for a good sliding stop), and still ride a polished cutting horse who knows his job and—with a little coaching—perform pretty damn well. And thus, the cutting horse world is populated by a lot of VERY rich people who don’t actually ride very well. But boy do they have nice horses.
When I showed up at the bigger cuttings, not only did I usually have the only “humble” rig in the parking lot, I was frequently the only non-pro on a homemade horse. Every other non-pro kept his/her horse in training with a professional trainer, who was there to tune the horse up and coach the non-pro through his/her run. As you can imagine, I seldom beat these people. Partly because the professionally trained horses were more solid than Gunner overall, and the other non-pros were usually far more experienced at showing. But there was another element in play.
I had taken up cutting not only because it was easier on the horse than cowhorse, but also because I thought the judging was less subjective. If you lose a cow, you get marked down a specific number of points. Same for switching a cow, or bumping the bit…etc. A judge cannot just let any horse he likes win a class. But…if two horses both have clean runs and neither gets a whole lot more accomplished than the other, well, a judge marks them higher or lower as he pleases. I did occasionally have a pretty good run, but guess what? It wasn’t often marked high enough to win. And there’s a reason for this.
The judges were usually trainers. They all knew each other, they all knew the rich clients who typically circulated around from trainer to trainer. They knew who had money and was worth cultivating because some day that person might put a horse in training with that judge. They knew if they marked a trainer friend’s client high enough to win a class that trainer friend might return the favor. So if a non-pro with no money and no trainer has a run that’s more or less the equal of a non-pro who is the wealthy client of well known trainer, who do you suppose will get marked higher? And yes, it does work like that. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.
So I placed a little and won the occasional class at a smaller show and collected some trophy buckles and headstalls, but I began to find cutting frustrating. I’ve already explained about the judged element and how political it was, but there were other things. There weren’t many local cuttings near me—I usually had to haul at least three hours (one way) to get to an event. The entries were very expensive, several hundred dollars per class at a large show. In order to practice effectively, one needed access to fresh cattle, and no matter how you attempted to arrange this, it was expensive (believe me I know all about this). And finally, except when you are actually showing, or watching someone else have a good run, cuttings are like watching paint dry. An endless amount of sitting around while the herd is being settled and the arena is being drug for the occasional few seconds of brilliance on the part of a good horse, and one’s own two and a half minute run, which was frustrating as often as it turned out rewarding. I just plain got burnt out on it.
And finally, I had progressed as far as I thought I was going to go on Gunner at this sport. Gunner was a solid cutting horse. Two local trainers had told me he was a good horse and I had done a good job on him…but he wasn’t going to get any better unless I let a trainer ride him. One trainer had offered to train and show him for free (he obviously liked Gunner) if I would pay his entry fees. One trainer had offered me $10,000 for Gunner for a wealthy non-pro client who wanted a gentle all around horse that he could win the occasional cutting on. And every single trainer told me that if I wanted to improve and “go on” at cutting, I needed to move on to a different horse. A smaller, cattier, fancier kind of horse. But I didn’t want to sell Gunner. And I was getting tired of the politics and logistics of this rich man’s sport.
So in Gunner’s nine-year-old year I resolved that my last cutting would be our local county fair. And what do you know? We marked a 72 and a half (about like an A-) and won the class. I got a big fancy buckle and that was our last cutting event. Here we are, winning the county fair cutting.

But Gunner’s career wasn’t over. Far from it. The poor horse was bred to be a reined cowhorse, and he was pretty damn successful as a cutter, considering that I trained him myself every step of the way. But all my friends at this time were team ropers, and team roping is timed rather than judged (no politics—yay!), and boy howdy does it move along compared to cutting, and the entry fees are SO MUCH cheaper. Not to mention that my uncle had a practice arena where my friends roped together twice a week. And so I decided that I would train my long suffering horse to do yet another event. He was about to become a team roping head horse. (To be continued.)

Parts One, Two and Three of this story are here.

And if you would like to read a more colorful description/rendition of the cutting horse world than I can provide in a blog post, complete with the driven trainers, wealthy clients and amazing horses that I knew (names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, of course), try my first mystery novel, Cutter, on sale as a Kindle edition for 99 cents. Click on the title to find the book.


Funder said...

Gunner's such a rockstar :3

Laura Crum said...

Funder--I spend a little time with him every day and am so grateful to him for what we've done together. I hope Dixie makes it to thirty-three (or better), too. It is a really wonderful feeling to have an old horse that you have had so many adventures with.

AareneX said...

Gunner IS a rockstar--and Laura is one too, for figuring out how to have fun without killing Gunner.

Y'all get big gold stars for that.

(and it makes me even more grateful to have found the True Faith, because on the endurance trail it doesn't matter much at all what kind of truck you drive!)

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I noticed that about endurance, too, even without ever going to a ride. But in the photos of ridecamp there are always many "humble" rigs. Team roping was/is like that, too. NOT just a rich man's sport.

Alison said...

Great, bold cover on "Cutter" Laura!

14.1hands said...

Your story reminds me of years ago when I saw Christine Brinkley (model) riding a cutting horse at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Laura Crum said...

Alison--I actually didn't care for the Cutter cover. It was based (loosely) on the photo I sent them of Gunner winning the county fair cutting (the photo right above the cover in the blog post). You can see the vague resemblance if you look. But the cover looks very Nancy Drewish to me. I was aiming more for Dick Francis than Nancy Drew, so was disappointed in this cover.

14.1 hands--Yes, there's a reason these celebrities are riding cutting horses rather than cowhorses or jumpers. As I say in the post, anyone who can ride a little and takes a few lessons can be mounted on a polished cutter and get coached through a run--and look pretty darn good.

RiderWriter said...

Cool, yet another reason to thoroughly enjoy this series! Having been raised in the East Coast H/J world, I know next to nothing about Western events, especially the real "cowboy" ones like cutting and roping. I really appreciate this explanation!

This is just a guess, but it seems to me that reining is similar to cutting, as in, you can buy yourself a fancy horse, climb aboard and go right out and win. Staying on during sliding stops and spins requires some coordination, obviously, but there's definitely a preponderance of rich folks in this sport, too.

And talk about no skill necessary... whoo-ee, just try standing on the sidelines at a Saddlebred show watching the Western Pleasure class. You never saw so many overdressed, over-bejeweled, north-of-60-years-old ladies in your life sitting on over-bitted prancey horses. Let's not forget the 80 gazillion dollars worth of silver tack on said horses as well. These woman got into the saddle in the warmup ring a couple minutes before the class (half of them looking fairly terrified), went out, did the class, and climbed off while handing the horse right back to the groom/trainer. How often do you suppose they actually ride? I felt really bad for the horses as they almost all had majorly cranked-down nosebands and colossal bits, so the riders didn't have much to do to keep them at the required snail's pace.

Maybe it's the same way at QH shows, for "older folks Western (Dis)Pleasure," but I have boycotted all AQHA events in recent years so I wouldn't know...

Laura Crum said...

RiderWriter--Those are really great insights. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Phew! All caught up. What a great read.
I love how your horses gave you inspiration for your books.