The sport of cowboys for generations

Ms Peppy Cat, ridden by Pete Branch

  Ms Peppy Cat, ridden by Pete Branch

  © National Cutting Horse Association


A nineteenth century cowboy transplanted to the present day would probably be perplexed by the modern world’s high-tech marvels. But he’d still feel right at home at a cutting horse show.

When American cowboys of the 1800s began using their best horses to separate individual cows from a herd, it was part of the daily job. They would never have imagined cutting as one of the world’s most popular equine sports. But each year, thousands of cutting events–from Austin to Australia–attract riders aged eight to eighty.

Cutting’s heritage runs strong and deep, like the centuries-old mesquites that flourish on the Texas plains. From Chisholm Trail to present day, cutting horses have been indispensable tools in the cattle trade.

During the era of the open range, cattle from one outfit often drifted and mingled with those of other outfits. Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, neighboring ranchers would join in a roundup to sort out their brands.

Every outfit traveled with a remuda of horses. Within the remuda each cowboy had a string of horses, some of them more suitable for one job than another. For instance, a cowhand needed a steady mount to patrol the herd during the night, but in the morning he could ride last year’s bronc to the far reaches of the roundup circle.

The cutting horse was an elite member of the remuda. A typical cutting horse might have started out in a cowboy’s string, but his sensitivity to cattle brought him to the attention of the roundup boss. He was the horse that pricked his ears toward a cow and followed her with his eyes. He instinctively knew not to crowd her, yet was wary of her every move. He made the difficult job of separating cattle easier and quicker. He even made it fun.

“It was worth the trip to brush country just to sit above Ol’ Gotch and feel his shoulders roll, watch his ears work and his head drop low when he looked an old steer in the eye,” said cowboy humorist Will Rogers after a visit to a South Texas ranch during the 1920s.

Tachitas Cat, ridden by Gavin Jordan

  Tachitas Cat, ridden by Gavin Jordan

  © National Cutting Horse Association

As big cattle outfits gave way to small farms and ranches in the twentieth century, pickup trucks and squeeze chutes took the place of cow horses. A few large ranches still rounded up cattle the old-fashioned way, but cutting horses were fast becoming obsolete. Today, the National Cutting Horse Association has given the cutting horse new life in one of the world’s most exciting equine events.

The first advertised cutting contest was held at the 1898 Cowboy Reunion in Haskell, Texas. Fifteen thousand people, lured by ads in the Dallas News and the Kansas City Star, attended. Since the nearest railroad was fifty miles away, they came on horseback, or by wagon and hack. The cutting contest offered a prize of $150, a substantial sum in those days, and 11 riders entered. Old Hub–whose fans swore that he could work blindfolded and without a bridle–was brought out of retirement by Sam Graves for this one event.

Graves primed the 22-year-old horse with oat mash and prairie hay, then he tied Old Hub to the back of a hack and led him all the way to Haskell–a two-day journey. It was a trip into the history books, and Graves set aside half of his winnings to ensure Old Hub had the best of care for the rest of his days.

The first record of cutting as an arena spectator event came at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas, when a cutting horse exhibition was added to the annual rodeo in 1919. It became a competitive event the following year.

By 1946, there were so many cutting horse contests being held, under so many different sets of conditions and rules that a group of 13 cutting horse owners met at the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show and decided to form an association to establish standard rules and procedures for holding such competition.

One of the founders, Ray Smyth, said, “When the meeting broke up, we had formed what we thought would be more or less a local cutting horse association. Someone remarked that with luck, we might even get as many as 50 members by another year.”

Later, at a meeting in Mineral Wells, Texas, the association was incorporated, and Pat Dalton suggested the name ‘National Cutting Horse Association,’ because it looked as though it had the potential to grow into something big.

The first show was held in Dublin, Texas, in the fall of 1946.

Smyth recalled that secretary-treasurer Volney Hildreth guarded the association’s resources “with a big stick. If we wanted anything that cost money, Volney would tell us to get enough new members to pay for it.”

When NCHA was formed, most cutting horses were ranch geldings like Old Paint, a brown and white horse of unknown parentage that Smyth bought for $40 at Weatherford trade days. Old Paint became one of cutting’s first champions.

But some of the big ranches had been breeding their own horses for years. The world famous King Ranch had a remuda of copper-colored horses descended from the Old Sorrel. Yellow Jacket horses, with golden coats and black manes and tails, filled the Burnett’s Triangle Ranch pastures; while the Pitchfork outfit was known for cast-iron cow ponies sired by Grey Badger. By 1963, the association recorded the results of 727 events, of which 504 were recognized as NCHA championship events. In those days, cutters vied for a piece of $404,183 in prize money. That included $23,225 paid out at that year’s NCHA Futurity.

Fast-forward to 2008, and the contestants at the NCHA Futurity will be divvying up more than $3.7 million–over a hundred times the offering of that first year. Total purses at NCHA-approved shows now exceed $43 million annually.

Yet for many, cutting’s greatest rewards are intangible. The bond between people and horses that makes the sport so special, also links it to the sweat and dust of the Old West, and sets it apart from all other events.

“The people who brought cutting from the open range to the arena, and turned the skills of the cowman and cowboy into the contest, were real sports,” said Buster Welch, a legendary cutting champion. “That fine sportsmanship is still alive and well in cutting today.”

Cutting Today


Third Cutting, ridden by Boyd Rice

  Third Cutting, ridden by Boyd Rice

  © National Cutting Horse Association

Is Cutting for You?

Whether you’re an accomplished horseperson, competing in another discipline, or you’ve never ridden a horse, you can cut!

Getting started is easy! There are more than 130 NCHA affiliate associations throughout the world, ready to help you learn more about the sport of cutting. Cutting shows offer classes for beginners to experts, giving you the opportunity to be competitive regardless of your experience level.

The National Cutting Horse Association offers a wealth of information on its website. You can find an affiliate association or a trainer in your area to help you get started as a cutter. What are you waiting for? Log on today! 

Our families put the Q in Quality

The Cutting Horse lifestyle is a magnet for families because all the activities around our equine athlete are easily shared with children, grandchildren, and other families. These activities bring families together, give them a shared interest, and bond them in ways you don’t often see these days. We offer a great atmosphere for doing things together as a family – and provide a solid environment for raising children right.

Our kids grow up with our sport

Third Cutting, ridden by Boyd Rice

  Third Cutting, ridden by Boyd Rice

  © National Cutting Horse Association

If you want to feel good about the future, go to any NCHA event, interact with the kids from our Cutting Horse families, and watch them cut. You’ll see they’re making close friends and having great fun while developing skills as young competitors, learning fair play and sportsmanship, accountability, and discipline and responsibility in caring for horses. They’re also emerging as talented young leaders.

NCHA kids are part of the National Youth Cutting Horse Association (NYCHA). It’s a strong program that values youth performance both inside and outside the arena. Every NYCHA member is encouraged to be an active part of LEAP (Levels of Excellence Award Program). Participation in this program is mandatory for those aspiring to the Youth Hall of Fame.

LEAP members accumulate points throughout their youth career earning awards and recognition as they climb the ladder of success. They attend Cutting Horse clinics, educational workshops on leadership and show management, help with fundraising to support youth activities at the affiliate level, and promote the sport through writing and demonstrations.

Women excel in our sport

Women and men compete head-to-head in Cutting Horse events and women make a habit of winning – even at the highest levels of our sport.

Open superstars Sandy Bonelli, Lindy Burch, and Kathy Daughn are in the Riders Hall of Fame. Mary Jo Milner is a perennial world champion setting records no one is ever likely to break. Alice Walton owned Futurity champion “Rockin W.” Others like Elizabeth Brumbaugh, Kelle Earnheart, Julie Hansma, McKenzie Mullins and Mary Ann Rapp have become household names.

The real proof is in these NCHA statistics:

- Four of the Top 5 Non-Pro riders in 2009 were females with $277,000 in combined earnings.
- 34% of the riders who entered the NCHA Non-Pro Hall of Fame ($150,000 in NCHA earnings) in 2005-2008 are women.
- 60% of the NCHA Rookie of the Year winners from 1988-2008 are females.
- 56% of the youth members who entered the NCHA Youth Hall of Fame from 2000-2010 are female.

There’s no glass ceiling here. It was shattered long ago!


The National Cutting Horse Association was formed in 1946 with its main goals being to promote cutting competitions, standardize contest rules and preserve the cutting horses’ Western heritage. The youth program (NYCHA) was later formed in 1993 to offer youth members the opportunity to develop their horsemanship skills, to learn sportsmanship and discipline, to develop leadership skills and to learn responsibility in caring for their horses and themselves. The youth organization is a division of the NCHA and operates within the same bylaws, rules and regulations. The National Youth Cutting Horse Association (NYCHA) strives to offer programs and opportunities to fit the needs and abilities of all horses and riders.


Membership in the NYCHA is open to all unmarried youth who are 18 years of age or younger at the beginning of the current point year. There are two age divisions, Senior Youth (ages 14-18) and Junior Youth (ages 13 and under). Annual dues for NYCHA members are $15 per year (Chatter magazine not included). We also offer a youth lifetime membership for $100 (valid from the time of purchase until the youth ages out of the youth class).

Thomas E Hughes, ridden by Austin Shepard

  Thomas E Hughes, ridden by Austin Shepard

  © National Cutting Horse Association

Additional Information

For additional information contact:

    National Cutting Horse Association
    260 Bailey Ave.
    Fort Worth, TX 76107
    (817) 244-6188