Horse cutting returns to the Minnesota State Fair

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2013 - 7:11 AM

After 46 years, the Minnesota State Fair welcomes back its celebrated cutting-horse competitions.

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Kathy Lessard of Rochester competed in the Non-Pro division of a cutting-horse competition sponsored by the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association.

Photo: photos by Genevieve Ross • Special to the Star Tribune,

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A few weeks back, some knucklehead from out of state suggested that next year Canterbury Park host an encierro, or “running of the bulls.’’ Had the guy been from around here, where about 50 permits are needed just to Run for the Cure, he would have known the idea would be quickly trampled to death. And it was.

So it is, similarly, that the chance 80 head of cattle will be herded down the State Fair Midway next week in advance of the first cutting-horse competitions to be held at the Great Minnesota Get Together since 1967 is exactly zero. Instead, as one might expect in this modern era, the bovines will be trucked to the Fair’s new AgStar Arena for contests that begin at 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

But that’s not how it happened back in the day, when the Fair hosted one of the biggest cutting-horse contests in the country, with one of the largest purses, drawing some of the best cowboys and horse flesh ever to grace the earth.

“I remember they ran the cattle down the Midway to the Hippodrome (now Coliseum),’’ said cutting horse trainer Pat Fitzgerald of Paoli, Okla.

Added trainer Bob McCutcheon of River Falls, Wis., who showed horses in the competition many times:

“The Hippodrome was packed, 7,000 people or more, and they’d turn the lights out while they ran the cattle in, followed by the riders and their horses. When the lights went on, the crowd went wild.’’

Exactly why the fair quit hosting cuttings is unclear. Whether folklore or fact, some old-timers recall that a few competing cowboys were overly comfortable at the fair’s beer gardens. Others suggest a fight occurred in which a cutter — the term describing a person who rides cutting horses — took a swing at a State Fair official, then escaped the state for Texas in a trailer full of livestock.

But in truth, changes were afoot in performance-horse competitions that would have ended the Fair’s big cuttings regardless.

More and more weekend events, for example, were being staged at smaller venues around the country that competed for riders and their entry fees. Additionally, the Fair itself was changing how it presented horses to visitors.

“There’s been a major transition over the past 30 years or so in the horse show industry,’’ said Mark Goodrich, deputy general manager of the Fair and a horseman himself. “Our approach in that time has not been to feature championship events, but to expose visitors to a variety of different horse disciplines.’’

With cutting’s reintroduction at the Fair, that might change.

“Cutting is such a unique equine discipline,’’ he said. “We thought this would be a great opportunity to introduce it to a large audience. The Fair is taking a strong stance to help make this work, and the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association has done a great job. Hopefully it will grow and develop.’’

HOW TO CUT

If 7,000 Fair visitors did indeed pack the old Hippodrome for cuttings in the 1950s and ’60s, they were either highly knowledgeable horse people — or drunk.

Possibly both.

Because as big a kick as it is to ride a cutting horse, and especially to win or “get along,’’ as cowboys describe it, competitions as governed by the Texas-based National Cutting Horse Association, of which the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association (www.mncutting.com) is an affiliate, can be a challenge to decipher.

Not the shake-and-bake, run-stop-and-turn parts that occur when a gelding, mare or stallion and its rider correctly keep a “cut’’ calf from returning to its herd.

Those are viscerally thrilling — and easily appreciated — displays of raw athleticism and skill.

  • related content

  • Cattle are herd-bound animals that band together while a cutting horse rider separates, or “cuts,’’ one away to show his horse. Runs last 2½ minutes. Cutting returns to the Minnesota State Fair at 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at AgStar Arena.

  • A rider tries to keep a cow away from the herd during a horse-cutting competition.

  • Star Tribune outdoors columnist Dennis Anderson, who wrote the accompanying story, has ridden cutting horses for 20 years. In another 20, he says, "he might get it right." He'll compete at the State Fair next week.

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