– I bought a horse once from a man who arrived at night pulling a long trailer. This was in Tennessee, and if the man hadn’t stepped from his pickup wearing his cowboy hat backward, I would have felt more confident about my pending purchase. But there it was, the front pointing back and the back, front. Also the sides of the hat bore a sort of Flying Nun look, all right angles, and entirely wrong.

I was thinking about this last weekend here in Winona. A three-day competition among cutting horses and their riders was being held, and I had hauled a gelding down, hoping to keep my money together. This wouldn’t be easy, because good cowboys from the Dakotas, Illinois and Iowa, as well as from Wisconsin and Minnesota, were in attendance. “Cowboys,” in this reference, being gender neutral.

My wife, Jan, was along, which hasn’t happened much in recent years. Schooled in equitation and a one-time trainer of Arabians, she now makes these trips only in a blue moon. Hanging on a rail, watching cow horses drag their hocks through deep sand, hoping to turn a calf smartly enough to impress a judge, doesn’t amuse her much. Unless it’s me on the horse. And our money on the line.

“I was a rider, not a watcher,” she says.

We arrived in Winona about suppertime Friday, and I swung the trailer door open. You’d think a horse would want to get out. But when invited to disembark, Isaiah, the gelding in question, quivered on all fours for long minutes before a concluding spasm of horseflesh propelled his final leap to the ground. Attendees who stumbled upon the sight of him in midair feared quite reasonably that matters could turn western very quickly, and pivoted on their spurs.

Bronc and bull riders, ropers and steer wrestlers call July 4th Cowboy Christmas, because so many rodeos are scheduled on and around this holiday. Cutting was once a part of rodeo. But the sport grew too big, and now is a stand-alone competition.

Beginning about 8 in the morning, scores of cattle are penned, saddles are cinched, and soon nostrils flare and dust flies. By suppertime, wet blankets are pulled from the backs of tired horses. All good.

Saturday morning, I threw my hat into a class limited to riders who had not yet won $50,000. This includes quite a few cutters here in the north, many of them with sure enough fancy-moving horses. But in Texas and some other states, where people buy and show horses the way Minnesotans buy boats, 50 grand is a relatively nominal achievement.

I kept Isaiah moving for an hour to loosen him up. Some of this was trotting, some loping, and others who would compete moved in a circle with me on one end of the arena. Already shown were the “open” horses, and professionals JP Bell of Duluth, Tracy Barton of Pierre, S.D., Dave Scribner of Stacy, Minn., Bob Janssen of Rush City, Minn., and Robert Parsons of Congerville, Ill., among others, had laid down enviable runs.

Cutting is like a lot of sports: easy to be average at but tough to master. Some people compete for the fun of it. But for most, the stakes are too high to participate the way a recreational golfer might tee up a drive. This is cowboy stuff, and the stock a person saddles is telltale of his ability to navigate the hotbed of skullduggery that is horse buying. Similarly, when a horse swaps ends with a fast-turning cow, there’s nowhere to hide. You either sit deep, or you don’t.

I drew up third out of nine in the class, a good slot, and rode Isaiah to the herd. He wore splint boots all-around, my saddle pad was more or less presentable, and I wanted to believe I didn’t have my hat on backward. A glance toward Jan confirmed either a small wave, or she was covering her eyes.

I separated, or cut, my first cow from the herd, and dropped my rein hand to Isaiah’s neck. The cow was good for a few licks, and Isaiah was locked on. But soon the cow lost interest, and with it went my chance to score points. The second cow was better, and I chipped a third from the herd just ahead of the buzzer.

It wasn’t great. But I got paid for third place, and called it a day.

Isaiah, meanwhile, was returned to his stall, where he chewed hay comfortably, indifferent to any fuss.

Well, there had been a fuss. Cattle had been penned, saddles cinched, nostrils flared and dust flew. July 4th was a few days away, and it was all good.


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com