Growing up, Nancy Burkes lived just outside of Hibbing, on the Iron Range, and it was there as a child that she roamed the region’s pine, aspen, spruce and birch woods with her dad in search of grouse and deer.
Though she would learn to ski, and become good at it, and also develop into a competitive curler, hunting was Burkes’ first love, and as she grew older, she became aware that the pursuit of game occurred worldwide.
Whitetail deer and ruffed grouse are great sport — perhaps the greatest, she says now in retrospect — but hunters who had the financial resources, she learned, traveled throughout North America, and also to Asia and Africa, pursuing their passion.
In time, Burkes, 61, also would trek far and wide in quest of big game, accompanied by her husband, Dan, 65. But first the family business had to be sold, which occurred in increments beginning in 2008.
Then they could travel. And travel they did: In one 13-month stretch they touched down on six different continents.
But they don’t always return home with trophies. On a recent adventure in Paraguay, she darted a jaguar, not with a rifle, but with a tranquilizer gun so accompanying biologists could fit the animal with a transmitter collar to track its movements.
“Nancy is a bit of a thrill-seeker,” JP Bell said.
Bell, of Duluth, is a cutting horse trainer, not a hunter. He met Burkes in 2014 when she showed up at his barn intent on riding a trail horse — an exercise many cutting-horse riders consider akin to watching paint dry.
“While she was at JP’s, someone said to Nancy, ‘If you ever get on a cutting horse, you’ll never ride another pleasure horse,’ ” Dan Burkes said. “And she didn’t. She never rode another pleasure horse again.”
But she has been riding.
For much of the past month, Burkes and her husband have been in Fort Worth, Texas, competing in the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity. The event, with a purse approaching $4 million, is for 3-year-old horses that have never been shown before.
Most equine entries in this and other cutting competitions are American quarter horses that have been specifically bred and trained for the sport. Born of a cowboy’s need to separate, or cut, one cow from a herd to brand or otherwise tend to, the sport is rooted in the long-ago days of open ranges and massive cattle herds.
Today, “cutting” is an international sport, with state groups such as the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association organizing events regionally and locally with the blessing of the national group.
“Duluth isn’t that far from Hibbing, and after I rode that first cutting horse at JP’s barn, I said, ‘Do you mind if I come back sometime?’ ” Nancy Burkes said. “JP said, ‘Sure.’ So I came back the next week, and the next week and the next.
“His barn isn’t heated, and I came back when it was 20-below zero.”
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In Hibbing and throughout Minnesota, kids grow up with varied outdoor interests, from hunting to fishing, camping to paddling, hiking to boating.
And, maybe, horse riding.
By contrast, many Texans, Nancy Burkes said the other day, spend much of their free time horseback, whether roping, reining, rodeoing or cutting.
“I’ve met multiple generations of the same family down here who cut, whereas my interest in cutting evolved late in life,” she said from Fort Worth. “I skipped the whole horse thing when I was a girl. When I began cutting I was 58.”
Late start or not, Burkes has ridden successfully, winning multiple MCHA and regional titles, and placing sixth in last year’s Futurity amateur finals and second in that division’s senior finals.
“She works at it like crazy,” Bell said. “That’s one reason she’s successful. She’ll come to the barn and ride for three or four hours a day.”
The exertion required to sit atop a hard stopping, twisting and turning cutting horse can exact a physical toll. And even for the best, most experienced riders, the sport at times features an impossibility quotient on a par with bullet-catching.
Horses, for example, including expensive ones — those costing $50,000 and more — can make mistakes. Ditto the riders. And cattle? Always unpredictable and sometimes rank, sour or both, they represent the sport’s consummate challenge: To mark a winning score during a 2½-minute run, a rider must keep a cut cow centered in the middle of a pen while riding with loose reins and using only his or her legs and spurs to cue the horse.
“It’s very challenging,” Burkes said. “That’s what I like about it, that and the people. The people in cutting are great. Their values are straightforward. It’s like going back to an old-time America.”
At the 2014 Futurity event, having ridden cutting horses only a few months, but liking the feel of so much power moving beneath her, Burkes sat alongside her husband at one of the big horse sales that runs in conjunction with the annual championship.
When a 2-year-old stud colt name Eight Mile was led into the sale ring, Burkes raised her hand. Again. And again.
When the auctioneer’s gavel fell a final time, she owned the horse. Her bid: $400,000.
Today, she and Dan, who also is competing at this year’s Futurity — both successfully, so far — own about 25 cutting horses, the small remuda split about evenly between Bell’s Duluth barn and a couple of outfits in Texas.
“Dan and I have been down here in Texas for weeks, coming home only for Thanksgiving and the final weekend of deer hunting,” Burkes said. “There’s nothing like hunting deer at home. My mother still comes to camp, and this year I hunted with my oldest granddaughter in the same stand.
“You just can’t beat spending family time in deer camp.”