C&I talks with some of the elites of the reining, cutting, and reined cow horse sports on the cusp of the inaugural American Performance Horseman event during the big American Rodeo weekend in March.
If you want to talk about the Western equine sports of reining, cutting, and reined cow horse, it makes sense to go to the top trainers in the field to hear from them what they know about their chosen professions and what it takes to compete at the highest levels of the horseman industry. Get it straight from the horse's mouth, as it were, and you'll soon find out that it's not just about riding disciplines — it's about the history of the American West and the modern evolution of early ranching activities into the wide-ranging horse sports of today.
Whether it's the event of cutting, where the objective is for horse and horseman to single out a cow from the herd and keep it from running back to its group; or reining, where equines display their movement skills on a predetermined pattern full of lead changes, sudden sliding stops, and 360-degree circles fast enough to make your own head spin; or reined cow horse, an event that combines movements from reining and cutting, while also incorporating other cattle work such as maneuvering a cow down a fence line and in controlling the cow — no matter the sport, it's sure to be a beautiful display of the partnership between horse and rider.
All of these events highlight the unique talent and precision found on the Western horse show circuit, allowing competitors and their horses to earn accolades and often lucrative prize money. Each event also has strong roots in the history of the American West.
During the 1800s ranchers had to work their vast herds of cattle across enormous swaths of land and along cattle drives hundreds of miles long. Those cattle had to be separated, branded, doctored, loaded into train cars, and more, and the team that could get the job done was a rider and his trusty steed. The skills it took to be successful quickly became coveted — and competitive. though informal contests in these events likely began much earlier between cowboys, vaqueros, and other riders of the range, the very first official cutting horse competition was held in 1898 in Haskell, Texas, according to the National Cutting Horse Association.
Later, the National Cutting Horse Association was started and held its first show in 1946 in Dublin, Texas, the National Reined Cow Horse Association formed in 1949, and the National Reining Horse Association began in 1966. Still today, on ranches across the country, cowboys and cowgirls can be seen using many of the techniques and movements now also displayed in the show ring.
It's a story about passion-love of intricate and fast-paced riding, of teaching and learning, of friendship and sportsmanship and, most of all, of the horse.
Considering all of this history on top of the present-day showmanship, we wanted to find out what it takes to be at the elite level of these historic sports. And we wanted to find out where the industry is headed in the run-up to the inaugural American Performance Horseman, a game-changing event for the performance horse sport industry. The event is the latest in a wide-ranging Western-focused initiative from multi-platform media and sporting event brand Teton Ridge.
The American Performance Horseman event takes place on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Arlington, Texas, during The American Rodeo, and will feature each sport's top five money-earning open riders. It is significant in its format, as well as its prize money and its accomplishment of aligning the missions of multiple industry organizations. Representing Teton Ridge's TR9 Ranch as ambassadors in the reined cow horse are Corey Cushing and Todd Bergan; in reining, Andrea Fappani; and in cutting, Geoffrey "Spud" Sheehan.
We spoke to these cowboys about what drew them to this lifestyle, their dedication to the sport, and the horses they love.
I don't think people will believe that horses can do what they do.
With more than 10 NRCHA premier event titles to his name, Todd Bergen is one of the industry's most recognized names in reining, cutting, and reined cow horse competition. He's also one of the unlikeliest. Bergen's family had no real ties to the Western industry until his parents bought a few acres and got his sister a horse during Bergen's childhood. Who could have guessed their son would end up dedicating his life and career to equine sports?
Bergen was primarily intrigued by teaching horses and showing the world how special the animals are. With the expanded audience potential that comes with the American Performance Horseman event, it's the moment Bergen has been dreaming of.
"When you're a kid, and you're playing Little League Baseball, you dream of being at the World Series. Growing up riding horses, it's actually a pretty small circle. Most of the world doesn't know what we do and how cool it really is. So for Teton Ridge to come along and try to open the eyes of America to what we do and the lifestyle that we live, I think this is something that we've all dreamed about," he says of getting to compete in his own World Series-caliber event.
"I think this is going to open a lot of doors and a lot of eyes, and that can only benefit our industry. Right now, I think everybody is kind of searching for something. There's so much turmoil going on in the cities and in politics, and I think when they see this could be a lucrative career for them, and it's a great way of life, I think people will congregate this way."
Taking a horse from knowing nothing and making it into a superstar really makes you proud.
Spud Sheehan grew up ranching and riding in Australia. He competed in cow horse sports before traveling to the U.S. in his teens. That's where he discovered the sport of cutting. The crowd's excitement at the first cutting show he ever saw sent shivers down his spine.
But it was the realization that you could train a horse a build upon its instincts to perform the cutting maneuvers all on its own that really solidified Sheehan's desire to compete on and train cutting horses. Now with multiple cutting championships under his belt, he remains fascinated by the horse's ability to read a cow and its will to win. It's developing that instinct that Sheehan finds most rewarding.
"And you can see how proud the horse gets, too," he says. "I don't know if they feel it through your body or what, but they learn how to win. It's kind of like a racehorse: A lot of those really good racehorses know they can't be beat, and they won't get beat. Same as a cutting horse. They know that they have that cow."
It's the passion for the horses that gets me up each morning.
Andrea Fappani grew up in Italy, and though there were many parallels between his life on a large dairy farm and the hardworking Western lifestyle, Fappani first started out riding horses English. It didn't take long, however, to fall in love with Western competition as the sport of reining gained popularity in Europe in the late '80s and '90s. Still, Fappani felt he had a lot to prove coming to America to compete and make a living as a Western equestrian.
Fappani's success in the show ring speaks for itself. He's the first person in the history of the National Reining Horse Association to win over $7 million competing. Ultimately, it comes down to hard work and those pillars of the Western way of life Fappani has always had.
"People talk about the American dream, and that's exactly what happened to me," he says. "Hard work does pay off and really does relate to the Western way of life. As much as I wasn't a cowboy growing up in Italy, I saw that at an early age, you had to get up early in the morning, and you had to do it day in and day out in order to be successful. That's really what it takes with horses. It teaches you it doesn't matter how successful or talented you are — you still have to work hard every single day."
It doesn't get easier, Fappani says, but it does give him a lot of satisfaction.
Any great cowboy has to be a great horseman. The horse comes first.
For Corey Cushing, getting to live the cowboy lifestyle means there's no clocking in ad clocking out. The hours he puts in can sometimes seem endless, but to him, it never feels like work. This lifestyle also means he prioritizes his four-legged partners. Cushing has won the World's Greatest Horseman competition three times. Making a living as a trainer and on the horse show circuit doesn't just mean showing up in the arena and riding. Whether it's working out travel and entry logistics for shows, fixing broken axles on horse trailers, or adjusting feeding regimens for complicated horses, he takes it all in stride.
The rewards come when Cushing gets to develop the bond with his horse. His current partner is an honest and talented young horse named Hott Rod. The other great reward is the bond Cushing has with his fellow competitors. He cherishes the people in this industry and enjoys surrounding himself with them because of their family and Western-lifestyle values. "When we walk into the show pen," Cushing says, "we're all competing against each other, but we're also cheering each other on. That's something that I truly look forward to."
All of these cowboys speak about the reverence they have for the Western way of life, and that's something Teton Ridge is hoping to foster more of with events like the American Performance Horseman.
"[This event] will give the horses and the athletes the platform they deserve. Building this model was simple, it was bringing the most elite athletes and the most elite horses to the front stage," says John Sanislow, operations manager for TR9 Ranch, a world-class horse facility in Weatherford, Texas that will further develop equine sports by supporting trainer-client relationships, top-of-the-line breeding programs, and innovation in Western event production.
Teton Ridge has invested in the best technology and craftsmanship in building the TR9 Ranch. In addition to the performance-horse ambassadors, known as Team TR, there are well-known names in rodeo, like barrel racers Sherry Cervi and Hailey Kinsel, as well as a newly developing Professional Bull Rider (PBR) conglomerate known as the Ridge Riders.
The goal is to integrate and support all aspects of the Western world. And the plan is in full force, according to Sanislow.
"Too often our industries always crossed but never had a brand to bring all of that under one root. And that's what's so beautiful about this brand and TR9, because we're doing it. We just took it to a whole other level."
And for sports with such storied pasts, the future is looking bright.
The American Performance Horseman event takes place on Friday, March 10, 2023, in Arlington, Texas, during the American Rodeo and will feature each sport's top five riders. Dubbed "The World's Richest Weekend in Western Sports" and "The Crown Jewel of Rodeo," The American Rodeo runs from March 8 to March 11, 2023, at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
For more information, visit americanrodeo.com.