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Core Samples

The cutting horse and the rider are pretty much working together. They have quietly moseyed up on the calves and, following some sort of instant deliberation, selected which "little dogie" they are going to cut from the herd. The Utah High School Rodeo Finals has once again blown into Hebertown and the mid-day cutting competition, which draws far fewer fans than the nighttime bucking events, is on the hoof, so to speak.

Now, tradition has it that it is the rider who indicates to the horse which heifer they are going to "work," but there are times, when accessing the focus of the individual team components, that the horse appears to be the one wearing the pants in that family. That part really doesn’t really matter much, however, as long as the judges agree with the cutting team as to which calf is in its crosshairs.

A high, yet somewhat subtle, sense of drama pervades the premises once the chosen calf has gotten the memo. The reaction is not unlike that of winning the random-drug-test lottery at work. "Oh, you gotta be kidding, not me again. There must be some mistake. This makes three weeks in a row. What’s up with that?"

Try as he might, the calf is unable to blend back into the herd. He stands out from the crowd. It’s as if they painted him "safety orange." Becoming inconspicuous is not an option. The rider and horse and judges are all staring at him. The die is cast.

The rules state that the little bugger has to be singled out by choice and that, once the decision has been made, neither rider nor horse may change its mind concerning the specific object of their pursuit.

Without hesitation the team makes a play and separates, or "cuts," the calf from his peer group. Now the real work begins. Once the calf in question has been gently guided to the center in the arena, all of the hours spent training come into play. By loosening his rein, the rider gives the horse a chance to show-off its acquired cutting skills — or "cow sense" as some of the wags leaning on the corral rails refer to it.

Doin’ its "durnedest" to get back to the comfort zone of the herd, the calf pulls out all stops to shake its nemesis. Like a halfback trying to force a defender to commit, head fakes and jumpstarts are brought to bear. But seldom are they able to fake off tackle and turn the corner. Today’s batch of cutting horses gets ESPN. They’ve seen it all before.

So the horse just lays back, usually sensing the "juke" move before it comes, and, having once again out-quickened its counterpart, easily blocks the way back home. Now, sometimes, although not often the case, the calf "sells the dummy," as they say in rugby, and wins the day.

However, the cutting team has spent the entire rodeo season, not to mention long hours studying bovine psychology, getting the agility and pattern recognition aspects of the sport down to a science. For the most part, they have learned how to keep the smirk off a calf’s face.

Once the calf says "uncle" and, through sheer frustration and fatigue, ceases its highly uncooperative scampering, the cutters release it back to the herd and begin the process of selecting another. This further gathering of points goes on until the stopwatch says that the two-and-a-half-minute allotted timeframe has expired and that it’s another team’s turn to enter the arena and ply their wares.

The herd, however, unable to get a similar "rotation" clause attached to its contract, remains in place. Individually, they have pulled down their hats, slouched their shoulders, and turned up their overcoat lapels. They are low profile, indistinct, unnoticeable. They are in a fog-shrouded alley and about as unemphatic as it gets.

They have broken their outline. There is no longer a pattern to recognize. Their very existence is being soft-pedaled. All ostentation has been checked at the door. Not even Sam Spade could pick them out of a lineup — let alone the rider and cutting horse team now entering the arena. Or so they think.

A bit later in the week, the scene shifts to a parking lot down at the University of Utah adjacent to Red Butte Garden. A different sort of "cutting" event is in the works — this one involving the university ski team and an obsessive concertgoer who had shown up 13 hours prior to opening riff.

A yawning partial herd of buffed-out skiers – up at dawn for a training run pile out of a team van in shorts and T-shirts and mill about as cell phones are brought into play in an effort to achieve a quorum. Sometime later — Starbucks’ lines being what they are — a second van pulls into the parking lot, disgorging a similar bunch.

As any cutter worth his salt is wont to do, the concert buff quietly, deliberately, and without hesitation singles out the selection he wishes to cut from the herd. But alas, somehow she senses it — pattern recognition, once again foiling the best laid plans of mice and men.

Immediately gathering the rest of the herd around her, she begins employing the "no-eye-contact-at-all-cost" defense which includes, in this case, body language more normally associated with a sense of impending ambush. When she finally turns and faces the music, she appears to be staring not at the cutter but, as any well-trained slalom racer might, at the next gate downhill.

Her answer to this somewhat early morning interruption is to hightail it at a pace not fit for man or beast, and to take the herd with her. Up the hill they head, first at a trot, then at a canter. He might have followed, of course, but there is the matter of his own early morning training — dunking bear claws into a coffee mug while lounging with a book on a blanket near a cooler. Pattern recognition they call it.


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