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.
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.
Going into the final competition for determining the 1986 championships, Milner held a $5,000 lead over her closest pursuer, Tom Hastings. While this margin was considered relatively safe, it was by no means 100 percent secure. But Mary Jo registered scores of 226, 223, 225 points on her first three go-rounds, while her competition was only earning scores in the low 210s. It was soon apparent that she was in a class by herself.
On the fourth and final go-round Mary Jo scored an impressive 228, leaving no doubt as to who was the world champion. Meanwhile her husband, a former world champion himself, placed fourth.
In a sport where much time is spent on the road, support from the home front can be very comforting. Jim has had nothing but praise for Mary Jo's accomplishments.
Perhaps the one thing that has meant the most to Mary Jo is the comment Jim made after she won in Houston. ``He told me I was `a true champion' because I won every go-round at the world championships.''
Mary Jo, however, is quick to give a large share of the credit to Playboy's Kid, who, she says, has the most athletic ability of any horse she's ridden.
Both Mary Jo and Jim compete as non-professionals because they do not take money for raising and training the horses. Instead, the horses are bred and trained on the Milners' 120-acre ranch in Southlake, Texas. Formal training begins when the horse is two years old. At first the horse is put in the pen with only one cow. As more cows are added, it soon becomes apparent whether the horse has the natural instincts to cow-down, to use the insiders' term.
``Kid,'' as Mary Jo calls her horse, is somewhat of an oddity as far as horses go. For those who know horses, he is a funny looking animal with a long neck and face.
Because Kid spends a good deal of time in the stable being babied, Mary Jo affectionately teases, ``Kid has a hard time remembering he's a horse.'' After a competition it is not unusual to find Kid helping Mary Jo finish a diet soft drink. But Playboy's Kid comes from a long line of good cutting horses and, as Jim Milner puts it, ``is as good a cutter as you'll ever see.''
With the prize money for cutting horse competition on the rise, more attention is being paid to ancestry. The horses are being bred much the same way as a thoroughbred or a good bird dog.
Even so, no one is sure just what the best characteristics in a cutting horse are. ``There really isn't any one physical trait that determines how good a horse will be,'' Mary Jo contends. ``The horse I won on in 1981, people laughed at. But that horse had more heart than any other I've ever shown.
``Generally, though,'' she adds, ``if the hocks [lowest joint on a horse's hind leg] aren't far off the ground it means that the horse can turn better.''
In addition to the two world titles, Mary Jo's long list of cutting horse accomplishments includes finishing as the reserve (runner-up) champion in both 1973 and 1974. She is the only rider ever to have placed in the top two NCHA non-professional spots four times, and her record of seven finishes in the top ten is also unmatched.
All this success, however, hasn't affected Mary Jo's level-headedness - as indicated by her positive approach to competition.
``I like to show a horse with the attitude of not going out to beat anybody,'' she explains. ``I like to show a horse thinking I'm expressing the qualities it takes to do the best job.''
And while her ``best'' has set the standard for all cutting horse competitors, Mary Jo Milner has not been resting on her laurels. Already this year she has earned enough money to be invited to the 1987 NCHA National Championships. And as the reigning world champion, this proud Texan is sure to defend her title with the poise and determination she has shown throughout her career.