Corro Stories

Cutting 101 with Grant Setnicka: The Ins & Outs of This Popular Equine Sport

By Bethann Coldiron


Cutting has been described as the most thrilling two and a half minutes of your life. This western sport involves powerful horses who move at a lightning-quick pace to cut cows from a herd and then keep the cow from rejoining the herd.

Since its initial inception in 1946, the National Cutting Horse Association has grown to be one of the largest western breed associations in the world with members in all 50 U.S. states and 20 countries. Over 1,300 NCHA approved events are held annually and over $36 million in prize money is handed out to winners. 

Grant Setnicka, $3 million dollar rider, 2016 Rider of The Year/Horse of The Year recipient, and head trainer of J5 Ranch and Grant Setnicka Cutting Horses Inc., sat down with Corro to give the inside scoop of cutting, what makes a good cutting horse, and how to get started in the sport.

“Cutting is a traditional western event that started out on ranches,” Setnicka said. “When ranchers would need to doctor one specific animal they needed to cut it away from the herd to treat it. Then, as the cutting horse evolved, it became a sport with the ranchers bragging to each other and who had the better horse.”

Grant Setnicka and Sueper Trouper, owned by the J Five Horse Ranch, at the 2019 NCHA Super Stakes. Photo courtesy of Ted Petit Photography.

During a typical cutting run, a rider will select one cow from a herd of 60. It is then the horse’s job to instinctively move with the cow, producing tight movements that mirror the cow and prevent the cow from rejoining the herd. 

“To me, a good run is like hitting that perfect golf shot,” Setnicka said. “For it all to set-up and go properly is a very unique and awesome feeling that is hard to duplicate. And there is an element of luck involved as well.”

The scoring of cutting is pretty straightforward. Everyone starts with a score of 70 and it can go up or down from there. A great run is a 75 and above. A 74 is a really nice run, a 73 is a run with a penalty, and 72 is an average run. At an NCHA-sanctioned event, a rider will make three separate runs. The three scores are then combined into one cumulative score.

“Once you cross the timeline you have two and a half minutes,” Setnicka said. “You usually cut three cows, sometimes just two. You have to show the ability that you can cut a cow on your horse and make a deep cut in the herd. They’re (the judges) looking for how even your horse is with the cow without any penalties. Horses that stop harder and have more eye appeal will score higher.”

 A penalty can be added for a horse quitting a cow, a horse losing a cow, changing cows after a specific commitment, failure to separate an animal after leaving the herd, and a horse turning its tail to a cow. However, scores can be boosted for excellence in cow work, skill in driving and setting up a cow, deftly handling a difficult situation, and showing courage in a difficult situation.

Grant Setnicka and Spooky's Honey Badger, owned by Cody Erwin, at the 2019 NCHA Futurity. Photo courtesy of Ted Petit Photography.

Setnicka enjoys teaching new clients about cutting, but also warns that many riders who are new to cutting may be in for a shock, as the style of riding and how one holds their body while riding a cutter is unlike any other form of riding. 

For one, riders need to hold their feet out in front of them to help balance themselves when the cows and horses stop hard. Secondly, the style of saddle that cutters use has a hard, slick seat so that a rider’s body may move with the horse.

“Most people that I have started cutting are already riders to begin with, but they have been taught the “proper” way with their heels down and toes up and keep your back straight,” Setnicka said. “Cutting is kind of the opposite of that. We don’t want people to ride sloppy but if you stay rigid while riding a cutter, you are going to sling off the horse when he makes those tight turns and stops. You need to stay relaxed and supple while working a cow.”

Grant Setnicka and Ruby Rita, owned by Robbie Thigpen, at the 2019 Metallic Cat NCHA Summer Spectacular. Photo courtesy of Seth Petit Photography 

Setnicka also suggests that anyone who is seriously interested in making the switch to cutting find an older, more seasoned horse as well as a good trainer who will show them the ropes.

“If someone is going to start cutting they need to get a horse that knows more than they do, so that way they can work on themselves and not their horse,” he said. “Getting a younger horse with a rider new to cutting could be disastrous. The perfect cutting horse is disciplined, trained, and doesn’t anticipate the cow but isn’t late when working a cow.”

It takes about six months once someone starts to learn to cut to go to their first small weekend show and be competitive, Setnicka said. The futurity and world finals (akin to the Super Bowl of the cutting world) are held in November through December in which the best of the best in cutting pull out all the stops in the show pen.

“To compete in the open and futurity finals is a whole other ball-game, but it all depends on the kind of horse you buy,” he said.

Grant Setnicka. Photo courtesy of GS Cutting Horses.

Setnicka himself did not start out as a cutter. In fact, he doesn’t come from a “horsey” family at all. 

“I got started on all of this a little later in life,” he said. “I actually started off as a team roper. Then, I dabbled in cow horses, and then got a job as the head trainer at Black Rock Ranch and got started on cutters. In 2010, I decided to go out on my own as GS Cutting Horses Inc., and I have been the head trainer at J5 Horse Ranch since 2018. It has been a real blessing. Every day I wake up excited that this is what I get to do.”

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