In 2012 editor-in-chief Stephanie Church started an editorial tradition: Once a year our four-strong team of dressage/eventing/hunter/jumper riders takes a horsey field trip to try out a new discipline. Last winter it was polo, which was a blast even if my mallet-wielding arm was sore for days after. This month we all tried our hands (and seats) at cutting cows. Talk about a completely different riding style than I'm used to!

The first cow we met was the "babysitter."

Zorro pays no heed to the cattle.

You can see the need for leg protection as cutting pro Gabe Reynolds gives us a demo.

Photos: Alexandra Beckstett

We dedicated the better part of a workday to driving the hour and 15 minutes to Shelbyville, Ky., where National Cutting Horse Association director Jeff Fisk, cutting pro Gabe Reynolds, and nonpro Lauren Minshall generously offered their time, expertise, and horses to help us experience their sport. In describing what goes into a successful 2 1/2 minutes in the ring (the amount of time a rider has to cut two to three cattle in competition), they also shared what goes into caring for and maintaining these athletes.

Similar to any other horse sport, cutters take great care of their horses' legs. Each of our mounts donned either wraps or sport boots to support tendons and prevent limbs from getting banged up as the horse shuffled, spun, and moved with the cow. Gabe said post-ride they bandage, ice, and poultice their horses as needed. They also pay particular attention to the horses' rear engines: their hocks and stifles. These are the joints that wear and tear the most, because cutting horses literally sit back on their hocks to turn and maneuver with a cow. Joint injections as needed are commonplace, as well.

One thing that does differ greatly between cutters and hunter/jumpers is the competition horses' age. Because of the speed and agility needed to cut cows, a horse is in his money-making prime between ages 3 and 5. Horses between ages 6 and 8 are considered very experienced, and beyond that they're typically past their peak and ready to teach newbie riders the cutting game. Gabe noted that cutters begin training these horses as yearlings and 2-year-olds, putting at least 18 months into their education before they ever step foot into a show pen full of cattle.

In contrast, a hunter or jumper prospect might not even begin his real training until the 3-5 age range, and an 8- or 9-year-old can still be considered young or "green."

Another notable discipline difference is cutting horses' size. I was surprised at how petite these Quarter Horses looked. My slender mount Zorro, for instance, couldn't have been an inch over 14 hands, and the other four horses present were all in the 14.2-15-hand range. For someone accustomed to seeing show grounds strewn with 16-hand-plus Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds, these horses looked like midgets. They skillfully carried their heavy tack and tall riders with ease, however. If size matters in this sport, it's the smaller the nimbler!

So what breed or discipline should we try during our next equine office outing?