When Starlighter was past her prime, Dale Leicht took her in. Years ago, Starlighter was a finalist in the Fort Worth Cutting Horse Futurity. One day, in a dimly lit practice arena, Starlighter taught me how to get in sync with high-speed decisions.
I watched as other skilled riders worked with their horses. As each herd of calves was approached the horse morphed into a massive feline. Ears would twitch back and front haunches would lower. Rider and horse found a near telepathic way of selecting the calf to be cut from the heard. Back and forth, rider and horse faced the selected calf looking for the chance to cut it from the pack. As options for the calf diminished the horse’s posture was even more determined.
The herd started with dozen calves. Then six would be cut out. Then three. Then two. In a flurried dance the front hooves pounced left or right as a desperate calf tried to reunite with the group. If rider and horse worked well together within the permitted two and half minutes, the selected calf gets cut off completely from the herd and the team’s artistic score is recorded. But this was practice and it was my turn.
I naively rode Starlighter toward the dozen calves. As we got closer it became a guessing game which calf Starlighter had her eye on. And I am quite sure Starlighter was wondering if the bozo on her back would give her a clue which calf, said bozo, had chosen.
Finally there was one calf that stood out. Quickly we cut the heard in half and then reduced the grouping to three. Starlighter eased into the zone she’d been trained to engage. I buried my boots into the stirrups, kept a death grip on the horn and held my other hand with reins just above the mane.
In a flash our designated calf made a run for the herd. Starlighter saw it before I did. The feeling of a 2000 pound animal making an instantaneous 180 degree shift caught me off guard. As Starlighter deeked right I was like Wile E. Coyote on the left, suspended in midair. While my entire body was leaving the saddle, I thrust my right heel toward the horn, hooked it and pulled myself back onto my cutting steed.
Back in the saddle we continued the somewhat poetic dance of rider and cutting horse. As I write I am reliving the feeling of syncing with Starlighter’s powerful flanks. Back and forth. Grace and power blended. I get shivers thinking about it because years later I vividly remember the feeling.
After we cut the calf I got off the Starlighter and walked her past a seasoned cowboy. I was clearly buzzing from my experience. Trying to be funny I said, “Betcha never seen a move like that? Did you see how I kept on the horse with my heel?”
“Weren’t you,” said the cowboy. “Starlighter knew your was falling off, scooped you back up and then went back to cuttin’… she musta felt sorry for ya.”
Starlighter, not the cowboy, taught me a lesson that day. When quick decisions are about to be made you had better be in anticipation mode.
Be ready for anything, even a 180 degree change. If that kind of decision occurs, blend with it, get the most from it. If you do you will enjoy the ride.