How to Exercise a Cutting Horse

If you've ever seen a cutting horse in action, you know what a high-energy event it is. In the cutting horse class, the horse and rider enter a herd of cows and the rider indicates to a judge which calf they are going to "cut out" from the herd and drive out into the arena. The rider then adopts a loose set of reins and turns the job of preventing the calf from rejoining the herd over to the horse.

"When the cow runs and stops, the horse has to run and stop and, when the cow turns, the horse has to mirror the cow and make the same kind of turn or even a more aggressive turn, which derives more points," Richard Herr, a cutting horse trainer in Gainesville, Texas, says. That's a lot of action, all crammed into a short two minutes.

In order to do this kind of work, cutting horses must be in excellent physical condition. "Basically every muscle in their body is used while they are working the cow," Al Dunning, a cutting horse trainer in Scottsdale, Ariz., says. "There's probably not another equine athlete that expends this kind of energy in such a small amount of time."

Keeping a Cutting Horse in Top Shape

Next to a proper diet, exercise is the key to keeping a cutting horse in top shape. Herr's and Dunning's fitness programs consist of a mix of actual cow work and exercise regimens. On the days when the horses are working the cattle, that's normally all the exercise they need. A young horse that's learning will typically work the cattle almost every day and he will pretty much get his exercise in as he's training. But the older horse that knows his job already may only need to work the cattle two or three days a week and, during the other days, he needs to be exercised. Here's a brief overview of Herr's and Dunning's exercise regimens:

A Good Warm-up

Before starting any exercise session, Dunning first gets his horses "limbered" or "loosened up" by saddling them and then putting them on a hot walker for 15 to 20 minutes. A hot walker is an automatic device-resembling a merry-go-round-in which usually four or six horses at a time can be attached for exercise. Putting the horses on a walker is on par with a person exercising or stretching before playing sports.

Bending, Flexing and Backing

Next, Dunning spends some time bending and flexing his horse. "We vertically bend the horse's head so that they don't get too stiff," he says. Then they laterally bend the horse to the right and to the left so that his neck is pliable enough to keep his nose up into the cow when he's working it. The horses also spend a few minutes practicing backing up and doing half-turns, both critical maneuvers for cutting horses.

Walking, Trotting and Loping

Once the horses are limbered up, they're taken into the arena and ridden for 45 minutes to an hour. During that time, the horses are alternately walked, jogged and loped. ("Lope" is a Western term for "canter.")

Cooling Down

After their workout, the horses are immediately hosed down to cool off. If his horses have had an especially strenuous exercise session, Herr sprays them with an alcohol rub such as Absorbine or Bigel Oil and then rubs the horses down before putting them back in their stalls.

Keep the Work Enjoyable

Throughout the exercise sessions, it's important that the horses aren't overworked. "If you work a lot of difficult cattle or if you're too rough on the horse, you can take the heart right out of a cutting horse and you don't want to do that," Dunning says. You want to make them think they can beat any cow that they cut in the arena. You want them to be enthusiastic about what they do, to keep them in correct form and to make them want to win. The right fitness program can go a long way toward accomplishing these goals.