The Kokernot o6 Ranch in Alpine, Texas was quiet and still less than an hour after the sun had risen on Tuesday, August 4. A handful of mutts dozed. In some places, however, violent motion suddenly broke the calm. Dozens of buzzing flies orbited a pile of horse manure. And in the first of 20 corrals, Alex Muratori, the cowhand at the o6 responsible for breaking the ranch's colts, was yanking the bridle of a recalcitrant young horse named Smarty.
"Lay down you heartless son of a bitch," Muratori yelled. Smarty planted his hind legs and heaved the bridle back towards him. Then, in an eruption of dust, the horse collapsed onto the ground. "That's another option," said Muratori.
Rod DuVoll, foreman of the o6, emerged from the tack shed carrying a worn, unadorned saddle. The long-haired 59-year-old has spent the better part of his life breaking and working horses, and Smarty's tumble did not phase him. "He's mostly been a pet. So he's got an attitude. We'll fix him though," DeVoll said.
DuVoll, Muratori, and the o6's other full-time cowboys were readying horses for out-of-town guests. Half a dozen relatives of Chris Lacy, the ranch's owner, were arriving from Bourne, near San Antonio, later that morning. They made the 400 mile trip West to compete in the cutting competition, which would occur that Friday.
Cutting, at first glance, resembles a typical rodeo event. Riders on horseback square off against ill-tempered livestock in a dust-covered arena. On closer inspection, however, the sport emerges as something unique: Women and children compete alongside men, risk of injury is marginal, and high drama is rare. The task of "cutting a cow" is simple but difficult: wade your horse into a herd of cattle, isolate a single cow, and keep that cow from rejoining the herd. Cows congregate in small spaces as closely as mackerel in the ocean or starlings in the sky; a cow that's separated from the herd will instinctively try to rejoin it. The rider's task in a cutting competition is to prevent this from happening—with style and confidence.
"I want to see courage. I want to see [the rider] go to the wall and not quit on the wall and I want to see them go on the wall with that cow and try to stop that cow in the middle of the pen," said veteran judge Richard Simms. "You need to show that you have got control of the situation. That's courage to me."
Simms' talk of courage is not rhetoric. "Amount of Courage" is an actual category on the scoring sheet. Additional points can be earned for graceful riding, known as "eye appeal." Failure to separate the cow, allowing the cow to rejoin the herd, or waving or shouting at the cow (rather than exclusively managing it with your horse) docks you points. Scores range between 60 and 80.
Rider proficiency produces top scores, but many competitors say the horses deserve most of the credit. "Once you're in the arena in front of a judge, training's over and it's pretty much up to the horse," said Dawn Lacy, Chris's wife. As if to prove that point, the event's commentator, Emily Simms, Richard's daughter, identified contestants by the horse's name, not the rider's. The morning prayer included, in addition to community, family, and Christ, a whole section for the horses. "We pray for their tendons," said the organizer over a loudspeaker.
Good cutting horses aren't easy to come by. Competitors say champion horses must possess a natural instinct for controlling cattle. "Like how a huntin' dog can hunt and have a real good smell, a good cow horse that's good for cuttin' is gonna have a real good desire for workin' a cow, to pay attention to him, and watch him and, you know, move with him," said Muratori, while taking a break from manhandling Smarty.
At 9 a.m. Lacy's extended family pulled into the driveway towing horse trailers. After the animals were unloaded, a young boy named Christian started darting under and around his horse Splash, brushing him down. Older cousins milled about the yard, chatting about home. Brandee Lacy, Christian's mother, said, "[Cutting] is 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, you're still there, you're still involved...You're right there with your family."
On the day of the competition, other participants also spoke about the social aspect of cutting competitions. Two families—the Johnsons and Seays—rendezvous at the cutting competition every year, three generations in tow. Of her own family Julie Seay said, "Half the time we see each other more at horse events than at Christmas."
The Lacys have been hosting cutting competitions since the early '70s, but the o6 ranch has been around much longer. The first iteration of the ranch incorporated in 1836, the same year the Republic of Texas was founded. The Kokernot family (from which the Lacys descend) became sole proprietors in 1912, and the ranch has thrived since. At 232 square miles, the o6 is almost exactly the size of greater Chicago. "It's one of the last large ranches in this country that's still family owned," said DuVoll, who has worked at the o6 for 24 years. "And that's quite a reputation to build up. The o6 ranch has always had a good reputation and always will because of the people who own it and the people who run it."
The' 40s and '50s saw a particularly golden era for the o6. In 1947, the late Harry Kokernot Sr. built a stadium for a semi-pro baseball team in Alpine that cost $1.25 million dollars. In 1958, Herbert Kokernot Sr. installed lights—he made sure it had the more than any other ballpark in Texas. The Alpine Cowboys maintain a devoted following today. Lacy and DeVoll attend most games.
A few hundred competitors and spectators turned out on Friday, the day of the event. Down the arena fence line, bobbing cowboy hats rested at different angles depending on whether their wearers were on top of a horse, drinking a beer, or keeping an eye on a kid. In this high-desert country, the sun obliterates bold colors, but bright pinks of cowgirl shirts and turquoises of special-occasion saddle blankets glided around the arena as riders warmed up. In the concession stand, under the commentators tower, the director and two members of the Alpine High School (home of the Fightin' Bucks) marching band sold breakfast sandwiches to raise money for an upcoming trip. Behind it all, rock-strewn Lizard Mountain loomed a mile high.
As the competition began the city slickers from the East did not always ride with confidence. Area ranchers, however, cut cows with commanding precision. After all, it's what they do for a living. Unlike most rodeo events, cutting is actually practiced on ranches. In day-to-day operations, steers must be separated from heifers, and individual cows must be isolated for vaccinating or castrating. "There's many a guy here riding a horse that he's using on a ranch every day," said Simms. "A bunch of these horses came off the ranch yesterday."
The time rider and horse spend together outside of the cutting arena is part of what makes the event so special to career cowhands. For this year's competition, DuVoll rode a black and white horse named Pepper. DuVoll first rode Pepper when he broke him 13 years ago. He has worked with him on the ranch on and off ever since.
"The heart of cutting is you take a lot of time to train your horse. And it's somethin'—you get a special feelin' inside just gettin' out there and competing and knowing you trained that horse yourself," said DuVoll. "You develop a heck of a trust with your horse. I think one greater than any other event."
DuVoll, having recently pinched a nerve in his back moving railroad ties, competed with a brace. o6 owner Chris Lacy, another of the more senior riders, competed this year too, though with reservations. "I don't trust my balance anymore. I don't belong out there." On the other end of the spectrum, kids as young as 10 and 12, got out in front of the cattle, nimble and fearless. "This is where my heart is," said 12-year-old Riley Craven. "In horse showing and stock showing and ranching and cutting."
A few days after the competition, speaking at home, DuVoll expressed concern that kids like Riley are exceptions, and that generational differences threaten ranching traditions like cutting. "My son is 24. He can do anything he wants on a horse, but he doesn't want this," said DuVoll. "Every year it gets harder and harder to put together a crew." Still, DuVoll says he'll run the o6 until they make him leave. It's what he knows and loves. "Cowboys take pride in what they do. That's why they do it."