This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio.
When Richard Simms, a certified National Cutting Horse Association judge from Brenham, Texas, sits down to grade riders on horseback, he always fills in a box that reads “amount of courage.”
“I want to see them go to the wall and not quit on the wall, I want to see them come of the wall with that cow and try to stop that cow in the middle of the pen,” Simms says. “To me that’s courage.”
For a sport that nods to the early days of rodeo and has its roots in friendly cowboy competition, the romance is fitting. And even more apparent than usual last Sunday at the 06 Ranch in Alpine, which employs real cowboys the rest of the year and sits at the base of Hancock Hill.
Several dozen riders and the same number of horses came to compete last Sunday in front of Simms. Some came from their ranches near Midland or Fort Stockton to compete. Others just took it as an opportunity to see the 06 firsthand.
As spectators watched from pick-ups, the people on horseback took turns trying to something seemingly simple: isolate and keep one cow from a herd.
The cow goes left, the horse moves left.
The cow goes right, the horse moves right.
It’s a dance of sorts, says Dawn Lacy, who’s married to the owner of the 06, Chris Lacy.
“It’s about the coolest feeling on a horse you can have,” Dawn says. “Because it’s just innately in them and you’re using the gifts they have naturally and just letting them go. And it’s just way fun to go with them.”
Other than looking at courage, Simms also assesses things like eye appeal, amount of loose reign, and overall smoothness.
If you have to gallop to track a cow down or use your hands you lose points. You can’t even use your voice. Control that cow, though, and you gain points. Keep your reigns loose and demonstrate what’s called eye appeal, or basically look good, and you get extra.
But who wins and who loses isn’t all too important.
At the 06 people know each other – one girl says she sometimes sees more family members around horse events than during Christmas, and Brandi Lacy says she just likes everybody helping each other out.
“It’s something your whole family can be part of in lots of different respects even if I’m just saddlin the horses or brushin’ ’em off or unsaddlin’or waterin’ ’em or whatever,” Brandi says. “You’re still there; you’re still involved. You’re right there with your family.”
Brandi was part of three generations of Lacy’s at the Kokernot Arena. Other families rolled up in RV-horse trailer hybrids, and these ranch dynasties seemed to be more the rule here than the exception. This is a sport passed down through generations.
As the sun came up and temperatures rose, cutters began making their first runs. Spectators watched from pick-ups parked outside the arena’s wood and chicken wire fencing. And a good amount of courage – from riders young and old, horses fresh and broken in – was on display.