Texan Mary Jo Milner is `king' of the cutting horse riders
Las Colinas, Texas
In a sport dominated by men, and surrounded by the aura of the Old West, where a man was no better than his horse and a man without a horse was no man at all, it is unusual that a woman would be tallest in the saddle. But Mary Jo Milner, who is as comfortable on the back of her favorite horse as she is in her spacious home in this affluent Dallas suburb, is the reigning World Cutting Horse Champion. Though barely five feet tall, Milner is diminutive in stature only. Her heart and competitive spirit are as big as the animals she so skillfully rides. Recalling how she grew up on a ranch, Mary Jo says, ``My father raised me to feel that I was pretty big.'' So being small and female has never been a hindrance.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In fact, Mary Jo believes that being a woman might just be an advantage. ``For one thing, women are lighter,'' Mary Jo explains, ``but more important, women seem to be more sensitive to the horse's feelings and respond to the horse better. They also seem to be more disciplined in the saddle to show the horse better.''
Mary Jo didn't get into the sport to make a statement about male-female roles or to ``compete'' against men. Rather, her interest grew out of a desire to spend more time with her husband, Jim, who has been involved with the sport for many years.
It was 1972 when Mary Jo first saddled up, and she's been competing successfully in National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) events ever since. She climaxed her first decade of competition by winning the world championship in 1981, then repeated the feat last year via a spectacular performance in the concluding event in Houston. .
Riding an eight-year-old cutting horse named Playboy's Kid, Milner swept the 1986 finals, winning all four go-rounds in impressive style.
Each go-round lasts 2 minutes, during which the horse must go into a herd of cattle and drive out a single cow without disturbing the rest of the herd. Within this time frame, the rider and horse may ``cut'' as many as three cows. Once a cow is singled out the horse must prevent the animal from returning to the herd.
``The relationship between horse and rider is a very close one,'' explains Mary Jo. ``The rider must keep an eye on the cow and be able to read the cow and know how the horse will react.''
Cutting horse competition has grown from its meager beginnings as a vital part of daily ranch life in the Old West into a sport for the wealthy of the New West. Cowboys of old required the skills of a good cutting horse to isolate individual cows that were either ailing or needed to be branded.
While that function is still an important part of most ranches, today's competitors compete for fun and money.
From the time the competition begins Mary Jo will study the herd ``in much the same way a poker player studies cards. The rider must know which cows have already been worked and which ones are still fresh.''
This may seem like trying to tell individual stars apart in the night sky, but Mary Jo studies their size, the shape of their ears, and the hair patterns on their backs to determine which cows to go after.
``If you go in the top of the draw, you can pretty much cut any cow, but the lower in the draw you go, the more selective you have to be,'' she says.
In most competitions five judges award each rider between 60 and 80 points. Points are added and deducted according to the technical merit of each rider's go-round.
Riders and horses are judged on various technical apsects: difficulty of the herd, whether the rider has visibly aided the horse, and how effectively the cow has been ``cut'' from the herd, just to name a few. Similar to figure skating and diving, the high and low marks are ommitted and the combination of the remaining scores awarded.