Friday, June 15, 2012

A Cowboy’s Cutter Horse

While writing Double Crossing, I had to explain why the cowboy hero Ace Diamond was without his horse. Being a man of few words, all he would say to the heroine Lily Granville was “I lost my cutter.” Hm. Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m supposed to know what that means, right? Well, Ace has yet to explain.

So I decided to do some research. Eventually, no matter what course Ace takes in the sequel to Double Crossing (Double or Nothing, hopefully out later this year), I had to figure out what a cutter was and why/how Ace lost it. Being a born-and-raised in Michigan, only been on a regular horse twice (and the horses sure didn’t enjoy me) greenhorn, I turned to my friend Google.

A “cutter” is an elite horse in the “remuda” which is a term for all the horses that cowboys use for a cattle drive. Every “outfit” made drives with a large remuda. And each cowboy kept their “string” of horses within the remuda – using some horses for riding drag (at the dusty, dirty end), or for patrol or for other specific jobs. A cutter has a special sensitivity to cattle. They tend to prick their ears toward cows, or follow each move of one with their eyes, and not crowd a cow by instinct. A cutter can separate cattle, which is a difficult job, far easier than most horses.

It isn’t training that makes a cutter. That horse has to be born with the instinct. I’ve seen Youtube videos now with cutters in action, and they remind me (remember I’m no expert when it comes to horses) of dogs herding sheep – only cows are a lot crazier. That horse has to turn and twist and go back again, anticipate the cow’s every move, and not be afraid of it.

Now an actual sport of cutting has evolved from the cowboys who worked cattle. Back in 1898, the first contest was held in Haskell, Texas – and advertised in the Dallas and Kansas City newspapers. 15,000 people swarmed to see it, arriving by horseback or wagons. No railroad station was close enough. Eleven cowboys competed for the prize of $150 – an astonishing amount back then. Sam Graves brought his horse Old Hub out of retirement. This horse had a reputation for cutting, and some people thought he could “work blindfolded and without a bridle” – Graves set aside half his winnings to care for Old Hub until he died.

Will Rogers once said while visiting a ranch in 1920s Texas, "It was worth the trip to brush country just to sit above Ol' Gotch and feel his shoulders roll, watch his ears work and his head drop low when he looked an old steer in the eye."

To the right is a bronze sculpture - check out the western art of Bob Stayton by clicking here.

Of course, nowadays pickup trucks and chutes have replaced horses. Even huge cattle ranches have gone the way of the open prairie and cattle drives over open range. And cutting has become a rich man’s game nowadays due to the National Cutting Horse Association. Perhaps breeding and pedigree have lessened the cowboy’s necessity for riding skills, but I’m no expert. I’d rather watch the video of the first filmed “cowpuncher” who literally did that—punched a cow while herding cattle into the pens in 1897, Texas. Click here to see it.

So what about Ace and his cutter? I still haven’t been “informed” by my hero about how he “lost” his horse. Come on, Ace! Tell me what happened. I know it was a traumatic experience, since you ended up horseless in Omaha – but perhaps fate arranged for you to meet Lily.

Ducking under a low hanging tree branch, we crept through the stable’s open doorway. I had to stifle a sneeze at the musty scent of hay and dust. Sunlight streamed into the stalls where several horses nickered. In an empty one, we found Ace Diamond sleeping on his stomach. When I prodded him with my foot, he rolled over with a loud pig’s grunt and squinted up at us both. A glass bottle lay in the dirty hay.
“Uh, wh-what time is it? Who the devil—ouch,” he said and touched the crusty stitches on his forehead. “Dagnabbit. My head feels like a squished melon.”
“Do you remember our meeting yesterday, Mr. Diamond?” I asked. Kate peered over my shoulder. “I see you found a doctor as well as some whiskey.”
“Needed it to cut the pain.” Ace sat up and scratched his soiled shirt. “Thought you was headin’ to California.”
“I am leaving in a few hours, yes. This is Miss Kimball, she’s also traveling on the Union Pacific.” I brushed sawdust off my split skirt and jacket. “I spoke to Mrs. Burkett, your landlady, who sounded quite unhappy with you.”
“That dried-up prune?” Scrambling to his feet, he weaved sideways until grabbing the half wall. A horse nuzzled his arm. “Never satisfied, no matter what I do.”
“Not if you’re prone to drink.”
Ace rubbed his eyes with the back of one hand. “I don’t suppose this is a social call, miss. Or that you’d lend me two bits. I got a powerful headache.”
I eyed him from head to foot. A beggar would look more presentable. “You wished to go to California. Miss Kimball and I need protection on the Union Pacific. Perhaps we can come to an agreement, Mr. Diamond. Is that your real name?”
He dodged the question. “What are your terms, miss? Sorry, I forgot your name.”
“Miss Granville. I’ll provide you with a ticket now and twenty dollars when we arrive safe in Sacramento. Provided no harm comes to us, that is.”
He stared with bleary eyes. “Why would two pretty fillies need me to ride shotgun? It’s a far sight safer on a train than travelin’ by stagecoach.”
“I’m tracking a murderer—”
“Whoa,” Ace cut in, fully alert now. “Who was murdered?”
Letting out a deep breath, I folded my hands together over the pocketbook’s strap. “My father was shot on Saturday in Evanston, north of Chicago. I believe someone’s following me, too. Perhaps the killer or his colleague…”
“You realize we’ll be stuck on a train for near five days,” Ace said. “With nowhere to run if there is trouble.”
“‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’” I quoted but he rubbed his mismatched eyes. I retrieved the Pullman ticket from my pocketbook. “Are we agreed on the terms? My uncle may reward you extra when we arrive in California.”
“Is that right.” Ace Diamond lurched toward the doorway and then staggered outside. At the trough, he dunked his head and came up spluttering, tossing water droplets everywhere. He coughed and then slapped his hat into place. “How about this? Fifty dollars now, and a hundred when we get there. Plus meals on the train and the ticket.”
“Twenty now, plus meals and the ticket.”
“Twenty-five, take it or leave it.”
“Thirty. You don’t have a choice,” Ace said, grinning again, “unless that preacher man you were with last night has a wicked left hook.”
Ignoring that, I rummaged for a slip of paper and a pencil from my pocketbook, plus extracted the coins from my money belt. Thirty dollars—it reminded me of the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas.
 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best First Novel!
Check out Double Crossing at Amazon - click here


Caroline Clemmons said...

Meg, perhapa Ace wagered his horse against cash or another cutting competitor's horse and lost. I live in cutting horse country and right now there's a rodeo going on in the town nearest me. It's big business now, but I think at the time of your book's setting, there were already cutting horse portions of rodeos. Your friend Mr. Google might know for certain. Before the "official" rodeos, various cowboys competed against one another at ranches where cowboys from two or three ranches would meet to outdo one another.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Caroline's suggestion would surely explain why Ace didn't want to talk about losing his cutter. Few men like to admit to losing... few women for that matter.

Meg, your excerpt has sold me. I want to find out more.

Paty Jager said...

Cutting horses are still used by cattle ranchers in eastern Oregon to cut out the calves when they brand. Not all of them use squeeze chutes. My neighbor uses her horse, which she is training as a cutter, to help all the ranchers in the area when they round up and have brandings.

Ace could have gambled away his horse, it could have stepped in a hole and broke its leg, or someone seeing it's prowess at cutting could have stolen it.

Good luck with your next book.

Paty Jager said...

Oops shouldn't have put that ' in the last its.

Devon Matthews said...

Meg, whatever you (or Ace) decides to do, I suggest making it not be something of his doing or choice. Like Paty said, maybe someone stole the horse or it met with an accident. If it was something Ace did that brought about the loss of the horse, that makes it less sympathetic. Nice excerpt. Thanks for the info!

Jacquie Rogers said...

They still used cutters in Owyhee County, too. Some areas don't lend themselves to mechanized modes of travel and herding. :)

Ace is a gambler so he could very well have lost his cutter in a bet, but I'd think he did it on purpose with the intention of getting his horse back, which he will, because he has a bigger game going on somehow. He's a very clever hero.

Cheryl Norman said...

I became interested in cutters years ago after attending my first rodeo. I saw Christy Brinkley competing several years ago on TV (My hubby is a huge fan of hers. She could compete in napkin folding and he'd watch LOL).

Very interesting post!

mesadallas said...

There are still a lot of cutter's used here in Arizona. There are ofen cutter horses for sale on Craigslist which cost a few thousand dollars but I know that these horses can also be extremely expensive. I've seen some of the champions who have been listed for up to $50,000.

mesadallas said...

Not $50,000 dollars on craigslist- I've never seen any horse that expensive there. I meant other sites to buy and sell horses that I have looked at.

Meg said...

Oooh, good idea, Caroline! I'll have to ask him... lol

Meg said...

Aww, thanks Alison! and you're right - Ace got all red when I asked, but he's still mum about it. ;-)

Meg said...

Thanks, Paty! I'm slowly getting it out... I'd guessed the horse stepped in a hole too, but like I said, Ace isn't telling. Yet!

Meg said...

Lol - a very common typo. I see it a LOT. My trick is to think "it is" prowess... nope, should be ITS prowess. That's how I used to tell the kids back in school, anyway.

Meg said...

Thanks, Devon! I think Ace is still mourning that horse, and I doubt he did something deliberate. I sure wish he'd just SPILL THE BEANS. ;-D

Meg said...

LOL - thanks, Jacquie! But even the most clever can't win every time. Hmm. Come on, Ace!! Tell us what happened!

Meg said...

LOL! Christie Brinkley?? wow - guess I can't imagine her with a speck of dust on her nose. ;-D

Meg said...

Interesting! I hear it's big business now!