Welcome to the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA). Founded in 1946, the NCHA’s purpose is clearly summed up in our mission statement:
“The NCHA promotes and celebrates the cutting horse, whose origin on Western ranches allows us to support ranching and its western heritage. By establishing rules for the conduct of cutting horse shows, NCHA strives to give cutters a level playing field and a progressive class structure, which accommodates everyone from the beginner to the advanced competitor. NCHA draws on the diverse talents and background of its members, and encourages their participation in helping it achieve these goals.”
The first cutting horse competition was held in 1898 in Haskell, Texas. In front of 1,500 spectators, Sam Graves and his 22-year-old horse, Hub, beat 10 other horse/rider for $150 in prize money. Clothes, riding styles and the amount of prize money up for grabs has certainly changed since then, but a cowboy from the 19th century at an NCHA show would still have the same goal as competitors in the 21st century… show the world that your horse is incredibly intelligent and instinctively athletic by separating one cow from a herd and keeping that cow from going back to its buddies.
What is Cutting?
The term “Cutting” refers to the act of separating one cow from a herd of cattle. The Sport of Cutting involves a horse and a rider and a herd of cattle.
Cattle are herd animals. One cow will instinctively try to return to the group. Knowing that, a horse and rider team will quietly rider into the herd, select and “cut” off (separate) one cow from the group (letting the unpicked cows return to the herd behind) and then prevent that cow from rejoining the herd – until they decide to let it go. Keeping the cow separated requires incredible intelligence and physical ability on the part of the horse. Once the cow is separated, riders are no longer allowed to use their reins. Trained cutting horses are required to think on their own and anticipate & react to the cow’s moves. Teams are judged on many factors including the cut (The competition is judged based on many factors – difficulty and how well the horse anticipates and reacts. This is the only equine competition where the horse is required to think.
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. Ranches traveled with their remudas (a herd of horses from which ranch hands choose their mounts for the day) to accomplish this task. Within the remuda, each cowboy had a several horses, each well trained, but also more suited for specific jobs. For instance, a steady mount was needed to patrol the herd during the night, but in the morning, last year’s spirited bronc was needed to quickly travel to the far reaches of the roundup circle.
The cutting horse was an elite member of the remuda. A horse that pricked its ears toward a cow, watched it as it traveled, wary of its every move, and instinctively know how to handle that cow likely brought the horse to the attention of the roundup boss. Those abilities were nurtured and prized. That horse made the difficult job of separating cattle easier and quicker – possibly even 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.
Cutting Competition – From Then to Now
It is unlikely that those 19th century American cowboys would have imagined that something so much a part of their every day job would become 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. But how did the sport evolve into its modern day form?
The first advertised cutting contest was held at the 1898 Cowboy Reunion in Haskell, Texas. Arriving by horseback, wagon or hack (since the nearest railroad was 50 miles away) over 15,000 people attended – lured by ads in the Dallas News and the Kansas City Star. The contest offered a prize of $150, a substantial sum in those days, and 11 riders entered. Sam Graves brought Old Hub, a 22 year old horse whose fans swore could work blindfolded and without a bridle, out of retirement just for this one event. Graves fed Old Hub oat mash and prairie hay, tied him to the back of a hack and led him all the way to Haskell. Little did Graves know that the two day journey would be a trip into the history books. After the pair won, Graves set aside half of the winnings to ensure Old Hub had the best of care for the rest of his days.
In 1919, the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth, Texas became he first recorded arena cutting – when they added a cutting horse exhibition to the annual rodeo. After just one year, cutting became a competitive event. And 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, recalled that “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, during a meeting in Mineral Wells, Texas, they incorporated the newly formed association. Pat Dalton suggested the name ‘National Cutting Horse Association,’ because it looked as though it had the potential to grow into something big. Smyth also recalls 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.”
The first approved NCHA show was held in Dublin, Texas, in the fall of 1946.
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 – an event limited to 3-year-old horses. In the early days of cutting, there was only one class, what would be called the Open today. It took a lot of courage for a greenhorn to go up against the born-in-the-saddle cowhands who dominated the competition. But as the popularity of cutting grew, a new, progressive class structure evolved which gave less experienced riders a chance to compete—and win—against their peers.
As big cattle outfits gave way to small farms and ranches in the twentieth century, the once indispensable tool of the trade, the cow horse, was being replaced by pickup trucks and squeeze chutes. Few large ranches still rounded up cattle the old-fashioned way and the cutting horse was fast becoming obsolete. The NCHA has been instrumental in giving the cutting horse continued purpose and new life in a modern world.
While you still see unregistered ranch geldings like Old Paint, a brown and white horse of unknown parentage that founder Ray Smyth bought for $40 at Weatherford trade days, and descendants of big ranch breeding programs like the world famous King Ranch’s remuda of copper-colored horses descended from the Old Sorrel, Burnett’s Triangle Ranch’s Yellow Jacket horses, with golden coats and black manes and tails, and the Pitchfork Outfit’s Grey Badger sired cast-iron cow ponies, the breeding of cutting horses has also evolved. Today’s sires’ offspring account for tens of millions of dollars in earnings.
2021 Futurity contestants are shooting for a piece of the more than $3 million purse – more than a hundred times the offering of that first year. Total purses at NCHA-approved shows now exceed $39 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.”
NCHA fans enjoy the sport of cutting across the globe in North and South America, Australia and Europe, with a love of the Western lifestyle and horses in common. NCHA is composed of more than 15,000 affluent, rural horsemen and women with large, close families, who lead a very active Western lifestyle focused on the cutting horse. NCHA member demographics compare strongly with other equine sports associated with the luxury lifestyle, such as polo and thoroughbred racing.
Members, Affiliates, and Trainers
There are more than 15,000 members of the NCHA that occupy 50 states and 20 countries.
Trainers originally were employed by ranchers and, over time, progressed into the professional trainers of today. Today, trainers have various backgrounds with one thing in common: love for the horse. Professional trainers develop intelligent, agile and athletic horses and are the experts in:
- Equine health care
- Cutting and training techniques
- Equine nutrition
Top earners in the NCHA have earned nearly 50% more than the top-earning athletes in associations such as PRCA or PBR.
The heart and soul of the NCHA are our affiliates, who create the first impression with cutting horse fans. There are 103 Affiliates globally, producing over 1,300 NCHA events annually and operate progressive competition classes so everyone has a level playing field. They have one-on-one relationships with prospective new members as well as current members and fans.
NCHA also has a youth division, which is designed to provide an engaging western lifestyle experience through two strategies:
COMPETITION – Western sports competition opportunities: local, regional and national NCHA events.
LIFE EXPERIENCE – Life experience foundation to include: leadership, social interaction, lifelong friendships, family, education, community involvement, sportsmanship and responsibility of caring for their horse. NCHA also offers $200,000 in scholarships each year while also recognizing the riders in a Youth Hall of Fame.
Events and Prizes
Over 1,300 NCHA events are held annually with over 130,000 entrants paying in excess of $36m in prize money. There are 20 National NCHA-produced events annually.
- Over $9,000,000 in prize money awarded annually
- 7,700+ entrants
- Over 30,000 spectators
- Over 110 days of competition
- In excess of $119,000,000 in local economic impact