Horses with 'cow sense'

In these competitions, riders take a back seat

The announcer calls out the name of the next team: "Misha Johnson, showing Lena's Dunny." Eleven-year-old Misha guides her horse, Lena's Dunny, into the arena. At the other end, a small herd of cows huddle together, kept in place by a horse and rider on either side.

Under the watchful eyes of judges, spectators, and fellow competitors, Misha and her horse approach the cattle. The electronic timer starts counting down from 2-1/2 minutes. Misha carefully guides her horse into the herd, separating out a group of cows and moving them toward the center of the arena.

Some cows in the group walk back toward the herd. She lets them go until only one is left. Now Misha drops her rein hand to her horse's neck. That's a signal to the horse that now he's in command. It's time for Lena's Dunny to show what he can do.

As the cow tries to get back to the herd, the horse gets in the way. The cow dodges to the left, runs to the right. Each time, Lena's Dunny reacts quickly, dashing in front of the cow to block its path.

Misha's job is mostly to hang on, to keep her balance so she doesn't hinder her horse's work. There's no time to direct the horse, and no need. Cutting horses are smart, athletic, and well-trained. Lena's Dunny keeps his eyes on the cow, expertly countering its every move.

Finally, the cow gives up and turns away. Misha lifts the reins to guide her horse back to the herd and select another cow. She'll have time to work two, possibly three before the buzzer goes off and her 2-1/2 minutes are over. As she leaves the ring, the judge gives her score: 71. A good run, maybe enough to win this round.

Along with many other young people, Misha spends her Saturdays in cutting-horse competitions. The tradition goes back to the mid-1800s, when horses were first used to help ranchers separate their cattle. Ranchers chose smart, athletic horses that could learn how to guide and control the cows.

Soon cowboys started holding contests to see which horses were best. Now the National Cutting Horse Association holds more than 1,400 shows and events each year. The youth division has two categories: The junior division is for kids 12 and under, and the senior division is for kids 13 and older.

AFTER her dad started riding horses, Misha and her younger sister, Brinn, joined him. Misha has been competing for three years now, and has won a few events.

"It's really exciting," she says. "The horse moves very fast. It can also be disappointing. Sometimes the horse loses a cow and it gets back into the herd," she explains. "But it's still fun. And there will always be ... another chance to try again."

Derek Denton started competing when he was 13. Four years later he has won a national competition. He enjoys the contests, which he says are usually friendly. "We're there to have fun," he says, "so people are usually pretty nice." For him, the hardest part is hanging on while the horse works the cow: "The horse has to change direction fast, and you need to keep your balance." Now Derek also competes in High School Rodeo Association cutting-horse events. State finals are in June, and national finals in July.

Derek not only competes, but also helps train the horses with his father, Tim. Mr. Denton is a professional trainer and has been competing since 1985.

What do you look for in a good cutting horse? "Athletic ability is important," Denton says. "But the horse also has to have what we call 'cow sense.' " Cow sense is the horse's ability to judge and respond to a cow's movements.

It takes 12 to 18 months to train a cutting horse. And the horse, like the rider, will keep improving with practice. Misha lets a trainer work with her horse and spends weekends practicing and competing.

Training starts when a horse is two years old. The trainer teaches the horse basic skills, like stopping and turning correctly. A good cutting horse turns by putting its weight on its back legs and moving with its nose first. This helps the horse turn quickly while staying focused on the cow. The trainer directs the horse in how to move with a cow. Soon a good cutting horse will get the idea and start responding to the cow on its own. After a while, the trainer's job is to just keep the horse's movements sharp and quick. The horse does the rest of the work.

Derek enjoys working with animals, but for now is content with farm work and competing. He, Misha, and thousands of other kids and adults are pleased to carry on the long western tradition of horse and rider working together in a winning combination.

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