After 46 years, the Minnesota State Fair welcomes back its celebrated cutting-horse competitions.
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.
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.
Instead, observers often are perplexed by the way cuttings are scored.
Here’s a primer:
• Classes are held for “open’’ (mostly professional) riders, as well as non-pros and amateurs. Some classes are restricted by a horse’s earnings, others by a rider’s earnings. Men and women compete in the same classes, usually in front of one judge.
• A cutter has 2½ minutes to show what he and his horse can do. In that time, two and sometimes three cows are cut.
• A rider and horse have four “helpers.’’ Two sit on horses in the corners of the arena alongside the herd, “holding’’ it, while two face the rider and “turn back’’ a cut cow, ensuring it stays engaged with a horse and rider.
• A rider is judged by how quietly he enters a herd and cuts a single calf, ideally in the center of the pen, facing the judge (and the turn-back riders). The rider then drops his rein hand to the horses’ neck, controlling and/or aiding the horse only with his boots, spurs and center of balance. The rider’s opposite hand grips the saddle horn.
• Well-bred and trained cutting horses work low to the ground while blocking attempts by a calf to return to its herd. The rider enters the herd with a score of 70 and earns credits, demerits or both. The highest possible score is 80 (this virtually never happens), while 60 is the equivalent of zero. A winning score is often in the 73 or 74 range, with occasional 75s and even rarer 76s.
• Cutting can be relatively affordable recreation at the entry level. But to win in higher classes, good horses are required that can cost $10,000 to $50,000 and more. Riders also must be very good, and a trainers’ help is often required. Entry fees at the State Fair will range from $155 to $195 per run.
WHAT A RIDE
For some of the approximately 130 members of the 52-year-old Minnesota Cutting Horse Association, Monday and Tuesday’s events will be homecomings of a sort.
Trainer J.P. Bell of Duluth showed pleasure horses at the Fair as a kid in the early 1970s. So did non-pros Mike and Mary Jo Lehmann of Menomonie, Wis., and trainer Tom Bjorklund of Waverly, Minn.
“I ran away from home at 14 to work on a ranch in New Mexico,’’ said trainer Dave Scribner, who grew up in St. Paul and now lives in Stacy, Minn. “By then I had seen cuttings at the Fair, and knew that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life.’’
That riding cutting horses is addictive — the best and most electrifying seat in the house — is a common refrain. Even those who give up the sport for reasons of money, family, work or injury never quite forget the smell of saddle leather, the dusty arenas and long summer nights passed running down the road in a pickup, a trailer full of hope pulled behind.
Other equine competitors experience these as well.
But cutters alone know the thrill of riding to the herd, cutting a calf, dropping their rein hand and gripping the saddle horn, hoping that for the next 2½ minutes they sit deep and “get along.’’
In the end, it’s all any cutter wants.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424
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