Cutting champ Adan Banuelos talks about his sport, his equine teammates, and winning the American Performance Horseman.
If he didn’t have wide name recognition outside of the cutting world before, Adan Banuelos certainly did as soon as he commanded everyone’s attention at the inaugural 2023 American Performance Horseman competition in Arlington, Texas. From one of the best-known families in cutting, the horseman both won the cutting event and was a member of the winning team, which also included teammates cow horse trainer Sarah Dawson and reining trainer Fernando Salgado. “Events like this help people understand our sport,” Banuelos says. “I’m happy that the stage is big enough to where more people can reach it, more people can experience it, and more people can become interested in it.”
His father emigrated on his own from Mexico to the United States at age 13 in pursuit of a better life, and found his calling in the horse industry. The son of Ascension Banuelos and Tiffani Banuelos-Ray, Adan grew up in a large Mexican-American family learning the value of family, hard work, and how to be a horseman. He credits his parents with instilling in him a love of the horse and a desire to be a good caretaker for his charges. He was taught well. Now living in Granbury, Texas, Banuelos has achieved lifetime earnings of over $6 million.
We talked with Banuelos about cutting; his equine partner, All Spice; and The American Performance Horseman.
C&I: Describe what makes cutting unique among Western equine sports.
Adan Banuelos: I think something that’s overlooked a lot is that we are the only equine sport that pretty much says, “Jesus, take the wheel,” and put your hand down. From a spectator standpoint, it’s really hard to comprehend what it is to communicate with an animal for multiple years [of training] before you get to a competition. There are a lot of people who are talented that can get a horse to ride around and stop, but to get a horse to do that with no power steering is unique.
I don’t know another sport that people help each other beat them. In other sports, they may hurt you to win, and here we are assisting our opponents so they’ll have the best day they possibly can. That’s something that I respect a lot about the sport. If today’s your day to win and today you’re better than me, then that’s your day. That fuels the fire for us to not stay mediocre, to not stay average, and to continue pushing to improve.
C&I: What impact does an event like the American Performance Horseman have on the Western equine industry?
Banuelos: From a spectator standpoint, I’m going to say 75 to 90 percent of the world has some interaction with animals. A lot of them are pets, but whenever you get to perform with a fellow [equine] athlete that way, it’s just different. It’s rare, and I’m excited for people to see it.
If this event doesn’t have an impact, then I’m concerned for the future. These horses are helping us keep a culture alive that some have forgotten. I love seeing kids grow up in this sport. I love seeing opportunities that are presented by people who love the sport. It also creates a lot of jobs, not to mention the vehicles, the fuel, the hotel rooms — everything is affected by a horse.
Horses have so much impact and influence on so many people in so many different ways. There’s no machine, no human, nothing like it. And I hope it continues for a very long time.
C&I: Tell us about All Spice, the mare you rode to win the cutting and the team competition and whose NCHA lifetime earnings now exceed a half-million dollars.
Banuelos: I’ve been on thousands of horses, and I didn’t know God made a horse like that. Her IQ is through the roof. I’ve never experienced anything like her. I rode her brother, Badboonarising, [to the 2018 NCHA Futurity open reserve championship]. He started a path for me that brought me to her. That mare is incredible. She can be a monster, and she can be a minnow, and she can be a psychologist and a therapist. She can change so quickly and can pitter-patter and glide, and then she can absolutely plow the ground.
C&I: What did you think about the team concept of The American Performance Horseman and the teammates you drew?
Banuelos: You’re riding with the five best in their sport, so there are a lot of things to worry about, but your teammates aren’t one of them. I knew nothing about Fernando [Salgado], but I have so much respect for him, and I really appreciated his humility. He’s one of the most underestimated horsemen that we have. And Sarah [Dawson] has always been a hero of mine. The only things I understand in this world are horses, and I don’t know how to do what she does, but I understand how horses try harder for her than they do for other people. Her horses give her everything.
C&I: How does the atmosphere and magnitude of an event like this affect the riders and their horses?
Banuelos: Everybody can say that they can block out the noise or don’t feel the energy, but to me if that doesn’t get you wound up and alter your mood, you are in the wrong business. It’s a big moment, and if it’s not a big moment for you, then it should be a big moment for the horse that you’re bringing to town, and for the horse’s owners.
I just reached the $6 million earnings mark, and I’m grateful for that. But the day that someone sees me walk into the herd not nervous, I want to be kicked in the a--. If you don’t care enough to accelerate your heart rate, then what are you doing?
C&I: With all your experience riding competitively, do you have any words of wisdom about how to handle a huge event with so much outside stimuli?
Banuelos: What I have learned over the years is to make sure you don’t let that affect the way you prepare. All cylinders have to be firing. You need to feel it all. But the horses don’t understand that, so as you prepare you do have to find a place inside of you that is very calm, very confident. Horses want to have somewhere to go and someone to follow. They don’t like angry people; they don’t like nervous people. They love confidence. I make it a huge point to all my horses that they feel like they own the building. If they’ve never seen it, it doesn’t matter. They have to feel confident enough to win. It doesn’t matter who you are: Confidence wins. So we have to promote confidence.
So many people spend so much money trying to enjoy the sport, and then we’re talking about only 15 horses that were there. If you want to talk about making dreams come true, it happens. It really does.
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.
Part of The American Western Weekend, The American Performance Horseman returns to Globe Life Field, in Arlington, Texas, on March 8 – 9, 2024.
Photography: Courtesy of Anna Krause.