The sport of cutting is a lot like another rodeo staple.
Like roping, cutting is simply a function of life on a ranch turned into a competition.
A contestant draws a steer, and tries to separate it from the herd — something Bailey Spitz has been doing for most of his life on a ranch in Lamar, but only competitively in the last year.
“I just started this year,” he said. “I kind of got into it, and I’m really starting to like it.”
The version of cutting that Spitz and others were performing Friday during the 2010 Colorado State High School Rodeo finals at the Moffat County Fairgrounds hasn’t changed much over the years.
Cutting’s roots trace back to the 1800s, when cowboys needed to separate cows from the herd or remove another rancher’s cattle from their own.
In 1898, the first recorded organized cutting contest took place in Haskell, Texas, according to the National Cutting Horse Association.
In 1946, the association was formed and cutting events have been performed at rodeos since.
Cowboys and cowgirls competing in cutting Friday at the fairgrounds agreed that the sport was tough, but considerably less demanding than other events.
“It gives you something else to think about,” Spitz said. “It’s relaxing, and fun to do.”
Cutting involves a horse and rider trying to separate a cow from the herd and keeping it away — not unlike a defensive back in football trying to keep a receiver from the end zone.
The contestant’s horse plays a game of a cat and mouse of sorts for two-and-a-half minutes.
As the cow tries to dip and juke one way, the horse, with its ears pinned back and nostrils flared, pounces with its front hooves in front of the steer in a game of multi-ton keep-away.
As the cow turns away to try and outthink the horse, its already too late — the more agile prevail, and the cow is forced into a corner.
Not surprisingly, the horse is the star, Spitz said.
“It seems like you get more time in with your horse,” he said. “Your horse has to really cooperate with you, and she will do stuff on her own instead of you doing everything.
“They have to learn just as much as you.”
The riders start with a score of 70, and add or subtract points by how they perform in the ring.
“You start at 70, and depending on how your cuts are, that can go up or down,” he said. “(In the first go) I had a 73, which is almost perfect.
“When you get a 60, you don’t get any points.”
Judging cutting depends on a number of factors, Spitz said.
“You want to go in easy and cut a cow out of the herd without a lot of motion back and forth,” he said. “You want to be as nice and smooth as you can.
“You let your hands down and let the horse do the work.”
Points are given for a number of different factors, Avondale’s Jackie Henrichs said.
“You drive in, and you have two-and-a-half minutes to walk into the herd and start one off,” she said. “As soon as you get one started off, you have to drop your hand and you can build up or lose points depending on what you do.”
In those two-and-a-half minutes, a rider and horse will typically pick out three cows from the herd.
Points are taken away if the reins are lifted, if the run is sloppy or if a cow escapes.
“If it looks good, though, they will add on points,” Henrichs said.
Henrichs started cutting because of an open horse and an opportunity.
“My aunt got my brother started his freshman year,” she said. “Something happened with his horse, and we had to find a new horse.
“We had her, so I figured I would start cutting.”
But, growing up on a ranch, she had been cutting, although not competitively, for a while.
“When you’re branding or sorting or shipping cattle, and you need that cow to go with that calf it helps to sort them out,” Henrichs said.
Unlike roping, Spitz’s other sport, cutting is better suited to a laid-back Friday morning.
“When you don’t use ropes, it eases the cows into it,” he said. “It keeps everything nice and calm.”