Test Riding a Cutting Horse
Two Horse Illustrated editors try cutting for the first time at a clinic in California.
In spring 2006, two of HI’s editors, Toni McAllister and Micaela Myers, attended a Galles-Harrel cutting clinic in Menifee, Calif., the home of world champion cutter Leon Harrel and his business partner, cutting competitor Rick Galles of Indy 500 fame. “I had no idea how much fun cutting would be,” Micaela says. “I’ve always ridden western, and I love barrel racing, but this was my first time on a cutting horse.
“I think what makes this discipline stand out is how self motivated the horses are,” Micaela continues. “I’ve never ridden a horse that was so focused on something that he wanted to get the job done even more than the rider! Cutting horses have so much cow sense and instinct. It’s like watching a Border Collie work sheep. These horses want nothing more than to cut and hold those cows. Of course the ultimate goal is for horse and rider to move as one, with one focus, mirroring the cow. As I learned, the hard part is keeping up with the horse. They’re so quick, which adds to the excitement.”
Riding a cutting horse was also a new experience for Toni. “As a dressage rider, I’m always thinking about how I influence the horse—what I’m communicating to him. With cutting, you can’t interfere with the horse. I had to let go, so to speak, and let the horse do his job! All I did was show the horse which cow I wanted, and boom—he took care of it for me. I was just along for the ride.”
TV personality Mindy Burbano-Stearns, a beginning rider and participant in the clinic, sums the experience up best, “While you’re watching the other riders, it’s almost like you’re standing in line for Space Mountain at Disneyland, and then you get on the rollercoaster, and you get your few minutes of thrill, and then you’re like, ‘Gosh, I want to get back on that rollercoaster again!’”
The Galles-Harrel Program
In 2004 Leon and Rick began their partnership and started offering four-day cutting clinics to riders of all levels. They’ve also added a Galles-Harrel Team option, which offers training for horse and rider plus competition assistance, including transportation to and from shows and coaching at the events. The team is open to people with or without a horse of their own for a monthly fee, and the Galles-Harrel training center maintains a herd of around 40 finished cutting horses for clinic attendees and team members to ride.
Leon is excited about the opportunity to teach others through the clinics and team, and he believes their program is unique in the industry. A seven-time world cutting horse champion, Leon is a true cowboy who has been in the saddle for most of his 60-plus years. “The horses have provided such a great life for me, and I’ve been able to accomplish all the goals that I’ve wanted to in this game,” Leon says. “It’s just a time in my life that I want to give back to the sport and to the horse, so partnering with Rick has given me the opportunity and the vehicle to put a program together that provides this doorway into the sport for people of all levels. That’s the lucky thing for me. It doesn’t really matter to me whether it’s a first-timer or someone who trains horses for a living. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, and I’ve taught both ends of the spectrum, so it’s easy for me to reach people on a personal scale. We’ve devised this team effort for people who want to show, and there are very few programs out there where they have real personal support. For those who don’t have horses, we can provide one for them.”
Horses and Riders
The horses provided at the clinics are all finished cutting horses—mostly American Quarter Horses, both mares and geldings of varying ages and temperaments. Before each clinic, riders submit a form detailing their riding experience and what they hope to accomplish. Based on this information, Leon makes an initial decision on what horses to put them on. On the first day, after a welcome orientation talk, Leon watches as each rider tries out his or her assigned horse.
“I was amazed at what a great job Leon did matching horses and riders,” Micaela says. “We had experienced riders and total beginners at our clinic, and Leon put everyone on the perfect horse for their skill level.”
Participants are also welcome to bring their own horses to the clinic. (Micaela and Toni left their own mounts at home and opted to ride Galles-Harrel horses instead.) An RV area, complete with hook-ups and ample trailer parking, is in the works for future attendees who haul their horses and want to stay in their campers.
Along with Micaela and Toni, clinic participants included three experienced cutters, two of whom compete; a dressage rider; two beginning riders with little or no experience; an equestrian photographer from Sweden who was an experienced rider but had never tried cutting; and a Galles-Harrel cutting team member from Australia, taking his fifth clinic. Several other members of the Galles-Harrel cutting team also stopped by for some practice time during the four-day clinic.
The Clinic Experience
Each morning of the clinic starts off with coffee around the outdoor picnic tables, where Leon outlines the plan for the day and gives talks about cutting and his philosophy on life, which is decidedly positive. “I’ve got enough doubts. Tell me something you believe in, son,” Leon says (a quote from Leon’s father that was often repeated during the clinic). Whether working with cattle or clients, Leon always seems jovial and relaxed.
After the morning talk participants mount for a warm-up, and then divide into two groups to work cattle or have a session with the mechanical cow—a stuffed cow that runs back and forth on pulleys and helps riders reinforce their stops and stay parallel to the cow during these stops.
“The hardest thing was waiting my turn,” Micaela says. “I know that it wouldn’t be good for the horses or the cows to cut non-stop, but I’m never good at waiting, and the cutting is so exciting you want to do more and more of it.
“The first day I was anxious to get to work with the cows,” Micaela continues. “When it was finally my turn, I was amazed how my horse locked onto that cow. I really looked forward to my chance to work the cattle each day. I was impressed that Leon was so hands on. He was out riding with us and instructing us all day every day. Big trainers often have people working for them that do the instruction, but Leon is out there offering advice to every rider.”
Regardless of which riding discipline you come from, cutting equitation is a little different. “Leon was on me about my position,” Toni says. “He wanted my feet very far into the stirrups with my legs forward, which is really counterintuitive for me. Leon wasn’t too impressed with my upper body straightness either—‘get soft, slump your shoulders!’ I kept hearing him say. I forever felt like a sack of potatoes. But thanks to Leon’s pointers, I stuck to the saddle no matter how much fight a cow had to give, and my runs improved.”
The final day of the clinic featured a competition. The day before, two teams were drawn, complete with team captains. The morning of the competition Leon explained the rules. Each rider got three, two-and-a-half-minute runs. Leon gave every run a numerical score, just as in a cutting competition, but he also took into account each rider’s level of experience and ability. Riders got to throw out their lowest score, and the team with the most points was declared the winner.
“Even though it’s a learning atmosphere, we all got a little competitive,” Toni admits. “I even got show nerves! I didn’t want to let my fellow cutters down. But the camaraderie was incredible—it didn’t matter which team you were on, everyone was cheering. Thanks to my fabulous horse, I had respectable runs and I think I even made Leon a little proud.”
“I had never even seen a cutting competition live, so the final day really brought it all together for me,” Micaela says. “The other days we mainly worked the cows from the middle of the pen, rather than the end like you do in competition. Plus we had fresh, or new, cows that hadn’t been worked before the final day. Even though the horse does most of the work once you have the cow cut, I really got to see how important that cut is. On my final run, I just couldn’t make a clean cut to save my life! But Leon walked me through it and gave me his great smile at the end.”
Toni and Micaela’s team didn’t win the final competition, but it didn’t matter. “We got so much out of this adventure,” Toni says. “It’s no surprise to me that even experienced cutters return to this clinic time and again.”
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This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.
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Test Riding a Cutting Horse