Making the Cut

Cutting may seem like just a hobby to some, but serious cutting horse competitors have a lot of time and money on the line. The unsung heroes are the lopers, who are responsible for the well-being of expensive, highly trained horses.

Stacie McDavid waits on her horse with her loper, Kaylea Simons. Kaylea has ridden cutting horses since she was 5 years old.
Glade Knight stands with his loper, Kellee Clarke.
John Mitchell, Birgit Danek, Glade Knight and Nelson Knight. Glade’s father was a cutter and roper. He developed a passion for cutting early in life.
Rob Matthews has worked as the Roven's loper for four years. He says that Chuck and Stephanie are very hands-on with their horses' training.
Chuck and Stephanie Roven.
(above) Justin Thomas, Dub and Christy Leeth's loper, has ridden horses all of his life. His goal is to become a trainer.
Dub Leeth rides his horse in the arena. Leeth says that Justin has a great attitude and really understands his horse, his equipment and his needs.

They alone determine if a horse is ready, and it's their hard work that means the difference between winning and losing.

It’s 3:30 a.m. this chilly November morning, and Kaylea Simons, a 23-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed cutting horse loper is in the barn long before the first whinny of the day. Simons says it’s a good thing she’s a morning person. This day is like most others for Simons, with long hours and hard work, but it is an exciting time for her and the other six lopers we got to know. They range in age from 19 to 35 and hail from Austria to Australia to Georgia. We also met their bosses — eight interesting and diverse cutting horse owners and champion “cutters” from four different families and all walks of life.

These cutters and lopers were in Fort Worth for the 2014 National Cutting Horse World Championship (NCHA) Futurity — the most important annual event in the cutting horse industry. This is where the industry’s most talented non-professional and amateur riders compete with their very best 3-year-old cutting horses.

The Futurity draws a crowd of more than 12,000 to the Will Roger’s Memorial Complex each year. An estimated $3.5 million is awarded in prize money, and the culmination is the crowning of the NCHA Futurity Champion.    

The purpose of our visit was to learn about lopers and find out how important they are to the cutting horse owners and competitors. We often read about the owners, trainers and even those spectacular horses, but it’s rare to read about lopers. In an industry that boasts more than 21,000 NCHA members, it would appear that the loper is the unsung hero.

Lopers’ responsibilities are numerous and varied. Their hours are long — first to the barn — always before daylight — and the last to leave — often after midnight. They work in the freezing cold in winter and the intense heat of summer.

Lopers are responsible for the well-being of expensive, highly trained horses. That means everything from blanketing to icing legs to helping with vetting. They drive huge trailers, hauling a dozen horses or more, valued in the millions of dollars. They warm up the horses for competition, a process that can include two hours or more of loping for a 3-year-old horse. They alone determine if the horse is ready to show. That determination means the difference between winning and losing a cutting competition. Competitors say that a good loper can tell by feel if a horse is ready.

And these things represent just a small part of lopers’ jobs. They have to be tough, and they have to love what they do. There’s no way anyone could pay them what they’re truly worth. Some live on the ranch and some don’t. Their four-legged charges are like their children and just as time-consuming, they say. But they love it. They bond with these horses and know them better than anyone does, including the owner and the trainer.

The cutting horse is a ranch necessity. Cows need to be cut from the herd for many reasons, including veterinary attention and branding. There are no rules in ranch cutting, but there are in the contest arena. The NCHA uses uniform methods of judging the horses and contestants. Basically, each contestant is given two-and-a-half minutes to cut at least two cows from the herd. Extra points are given for skill and style. Penalties take away points. This is a sport that requires great skill, both from the rider and the horse. The vast majority of cutting horses are Registered American Quarter Horses. They are bred to have the agility, skill and the heart to do the job.  

Kaylea Simons works as a loper for non-professional cutting horse competitors and breeders, Stacie and David McDavid. The McDavids live in Fort Worth and are longtime supporters and pioneers of the cutting horse industry. Both are successful in cutting competition and are well-known for their Weatherford breeding and training operation.

The daughter of horse trainers, Simons has ridden cutting horses since she was 5 years old. Born in North Dakota, she slowly made her way south to Texas, where she has worked as a loper for two years. She attends college and hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing management. “Working as a loper allows me to go to school, and it helps pay my tuition,” Simons says. As is the case with the majority of the lopers we met, her favorite part of the job is working with the horses and traveling to different places for shows. And like the others, the Futurity is the highlight of her year.

“The McDavids are the best people anyone could possibly work for,” she says. “They are very appreciative of my help and provide a beautiful place for me to work and live. Being a loper is a lot of work and very long hours, but if you love it, it’s worth it. I love it.” 

Ryan Howell, 19, is from Preston, Ga. Howell has worked for the McDavids for a little more than a year. This is his second Futurity. Howell enjoys his job he says, because he is “treated well, appreciated, and is working for two of the best people in the business. Getting up so early is the hardest part of my job,” he says. Howell’s ultimate goal is to become a cutting horse trainer.

Cutting is a hobby, but serious cutting horse competitors have a lot of time and money on the line, and in some cases, it’s a business as well, says Stacie McDavid.

“It’s a tough sport,” McDavid says. “To be in this business, you need to have a great capacity for suffering. In other disciplines, it’s about you and the horse. In cutting, it’s about you and the horse, but the cow is the great equalizer. The best horse does not win a lot of times because the best horse will have the rankest cow.”

What we heard time and time again when talking with non-pro and pro cutters is the sport is humbling.

“The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s bottom every day,” says McDavid. “It applies to this sport like nothing else. You need lopers that know your horses and will have them ready for anything. David and I know, and our trainer knows that a good loper is invaluable. Kaylea and Ryan have excellent reputations and are top-quality lopers. We couldn’t ask for any better.”

The cutting horse industry works in reverse of every other sport. Other sports start with playing games, and then at the end of the season, they have their Super Bowl or World Series. The cutting horse sport starts with its Super Bowl or World Series. In the Futurity, horses are 3-year-olds that have just been trained over the last year. Training can’t begin until they’re two. They’ve never been in a horse show.

A 3-year-old horse is like a 13-year-old boy. Everything excites him. If something makes a lot of noise, he jumps. Anything except a relatively quiet arena disturbs him. Trainers try to find a horse that has a natural ability that they can train and bring to the Futurity, the top of the cutting horse shows because it is the Super Bowl.

“If a very young horse rides into the arena with all of the distractions and does well, it’s a good indication that he’s going to be an extraordinary horse over the next three years,” Stacie McDavid says.

“The loper has everything to do with how that horse rides into the arena. It’s the longest two and a half minutes of their lives.”

The loper’s job is just as important as any on the team — a uniquely important position, says David McDavid.

“What the loper does is lope the horse down (ride them in a training pen). That takes the edge off the horse. And while they are doing this, the loper learns the level of where that horse is at its best performance. Some have to be loped a couple of hours before a show. Some only need 30 minutes. The loper has to have enough horse sense to realize when the horse is just right to perform,” David McDavid continues.

If they can’t do that, the horse can be what cutters call ‘too fresh’ which means they’re a little fractious. If they lope them too much, the horse can be too tired, what is known as ‘not bright.’

“There’s a fine line right in the middle of those two things, and the loper has to know where that is,” David McDavid says. “I’ve got to tell you that we’re fortunate that our lopers are really great at it. We trust them. When they hand me or Stacie that horse, we know it’s like it ought to be. And when we do well, they’re just as thrilled as we are because they know they had that horse just right. Unless you’re in the industry, you don’t have a clue as to how important a loper is. Even some in the industry don’t know.”

Non-pro cutting horse champions, top owners and breeders, Glade Knight, founder, chairman and CEO of Richmond, Va.-based Apple REIT Companies, and his son, Nelson Knight, executive vice president and CIO of Apple Hospitality REIT, grew up riding horses. Glade’s father was a cutter and roper. They both developed a passion for cutting early in life. The family lives in Virginia and operates Slate River Ranch in Weatherford. 

Kellee Clarke and Birgit Danek, who is known as “B,” work as lopers there.

“In thinking about all the team members as you prepare for cutting competition, a good comparison would be that in NASCAR; a racecar driver would have a really hard time if he didn’t have an exceptional team,” Nelson Knight says.

“In our industry, lopers are equally as valuable and contribute greatly. Kellee and B are such a component to our success. They have a genuine love for the animals and for the industry. It’s far more than just preparing a horse for a show. They really look after them.”

Glade Knight says he loves ranching and is a “huge respecter of the horse. The horse, to me, has an incredible legacy that we as humans owe a great deal to,” Knight says. “In the cutting sport, it’s teaming up with the animal, becoming one with it. You never achieve perfection, but we all strive to be as good as we can. It’s a team sport and a good family sport as well. I really enjoy it.”

Every team member is critical, Glade Knight says. “Those who take care of our horses and get them ready for you — those called lopers — make sure the right equipment is on, that it absolutely fits the horse, and that the horse is prepared,” he says.

“Kellee and B have special relationships with the horses. They’re wonderful, just outstanding people, and they do it because they love the animals.”

Kellee Clarke is 35 years old. She competed in rodeos in Australia and fulfilled her dream to come to America. She eventually landed at Slate River Ranch and is happy she did.

“Glade and Nelson are fabulous people,” Clarke says. “I have a great relationship with them and have the utmost respect for them. Nelson is like a friend, and Glade is more like a father figure. When you see Glade walk in, a happiness comes over you. They are so positive and appreciative for everything anyone does for them, that it makes working for them a joy,” she says.

Clarke says some people wonder why she works as a loper because it is such hard work. “It’s a huge responsibility, but I love it,” she says. “When I think about the relationship a mother has with her child, that’s the relationship I have with those horses. I look out for them better than I look out for myself.”

Birgit Danek is 30 years old. She came from Austria a decade ago, lived in Oregon for six years and then moved to Texas. “I feel fortunate to work for Glade and Nelson because of how they treat everybody as part of his family,” Danek says. “That’s what makes it so special.”

Danek says she enjoys being a loper because she likes being around the sportsmanship and competition in the cutting industry. “People work together even though they may be in a different camp,” Danek says. “Everybody helps everybody else out.”

The hardest part of her job, Danek says: “It’s probably the time thing. You have to make sacrifices for your own free time because it is time consuming. You’ve got to love it. Otherwise, it’s not the job for you. You have to love the horses and people and have a good work ethic.”

Cutting champion Stephanie Haymes-Roven won the NCHA World Finals in 2009. Her husband, Chuck Roven, also a cutting enthusiast, is a producer of Hollywood blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman Begins.

The Rovens live in Los Olivos, Calif. They also own a home in Weatherford.

Stephanie Roven’s love affair with horses began when she was 10 years old and in boarding school. She started out with English riding. “When I got to experience a cutting horse, I had never ridden a horse that was so smart and so in tune with me,” she says. “It was amazing that you could turn a horse loose, and they participated in this activity of holding a cow. You drop the reins, and you’re only controlling them laterally. When you watch them, there’s a thought process involved. They are thinking about their job and how they can do what you want them to do, but they also are thinking about how to stop a cow.” she says.

Chuck Roven grew up in Los Angeles at a time when there were numerous ranches around the Greater Los Angeles area. He started riding horses when he was 5 years old. As a teenager, Roven worked on those ranches, riding and moving cattle around.

“That’s where I got my love of horses,” he says. Roven stopped riding when he was in his 20s. In his late 40s, he and Stephanie became involved romantically. She introduced him to cutting. “That re-awoke my love of horses,” he says. “In cutting, the way a horse moves when you’re on it and it’s in sync with you, you feel all’s well with the horse, and then the horse is locked on the cow. That’s a very special feeling that you can only get on a cutting horse. It can make you feel kind of Zen when it all comes together.”

Rob Matthews is 34 years old. He has worked as the Roven’s loper for about four years.

“Steph is a big help for sure,” Matthews says. “She’s there first thing in the morning and there until the end of the day. She and Chuck are not people who just fly in and leave everything to the trainer and the loper. They’re very involved and on top of everything.”

Matthews says his job is getting the horses to the shows and where they need to be, as well as working with the trainers. “There’s a lot of hours and you’re definitely dedicated to it, but it’s easy to get burned out,” he says. “Steph lets me show in non-pro some here and there, and that really makes it worth it.”

The best part of his job is traveling to the shows, especially in France for Mercuria cutting competitions, Matthews says.

“What’s so special about Rob is first and foremost, he’s a great man and he loves horses,” Stephanie Roven says. “He’s also an accomplished artist and a musician. When we go down the road together, we have a lot of time in the truck driving, and we can talk about a lot of subjects. We don’t just talk about the cutting world. We have a lot of things in common that we love,” she says.

A loper is as important as your trainer, she says. “Rob gets a horse ready with so much feel that the horse is relaxed but serious. It’s ready to go to work. The lopers get to know the horses better than the riders.”  

Non-pro cutters Christy and Dub Leeth live in Cleburne, but their horses live on the Bar H Ranch in Weatherford.

Their lopers are Sadie Watkins and Justin Thomas, who both work for Paul and Julie Hansma, owners of the Bar H. 

Dub Leeth grew up in Hico. After high school, he moved to Fort Worth to make his fortune, he says. Eventually he did, when he started his own company, All Star Corrugated. “All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy,” Dub Leeth says. “I’ve pretty much always had a horse but couldn’t afford the cutting aspect of the thing until 22 years ago. Fortunately I got blessed with two partners that run my company, and they let me go play.”

“Justin is an all around cowboy,” says Dub Leeth. “He has a great attitude and understands my horse, my equipment and my needs. He is quite a character.” 

One of Dub’s proudest moments in cutting was three years ago when he finished third in non-pro and won the Seniors in the Futurity. “I won $80,000. That was my biggest win,” he says.

Christy Leeth rode her first cutting horse with Joe Stiles, who was the Quarter Horse manager of the legendary King Ranch. “I had never ridden a cutting horse,” Leeth says. “He just told me to sit on my pockets, and if it got too fast for me, to just pull up. I had to pull up a couple of times. I’ll never forget the impact it had on me the first time that I felt a horse draw backwards into himself and roll over his hocks. It was a movement that was just thrilling,” she says. From that moment on, Leeth was addicted to cutting. Within a month, she had bought a horse and was going to her first competition. “Cutting makes you feel that you’re part of the horse,” Leeth says. “Instead of having two legs, you have six, and instead of having two ears, you have four. It just makes you feel like you and the horse are partners. When you do well, you’re so happy with yourself and your partner.”

Christy says their lopers work hard and take it equally as hard as they do if the showing doesn’t go well. “We count on them so much because the lopers know our horses better than we do,” she says. “We trust them so much with our chance for success in the show pen. If a cutting horse’s mind isn’t right, as well as his physical body, you probably won’t succeed, and if you succeed once, you won’t succeed in a row. You have to have your horse ready in mind and spirit, and you trust your trainer and your loper to do that for you.”

Sadie Watkins is 20 years old. She moved to North Texas from Miami, Texas. Watkins says she loves people and enjoys traveling to cutting competitions. “I grew up in a small town, and getting to see the rest of the world and different horses that can do different things is just awesome.” The hardest part of her job, she says, is waking up early.

“I work really hard because I want Christy to do well,” Watkins says. “She’s just the sweetest person. Every time she comes to the barn, she has this big smile on her face and gives me a big hug.”

Justin Thomas, 25, grew up in a small town in Southeast Texas, where his family owns a Performance Horse ranch. He has ridden horses all his life. “I decided my discipline would be cutting horses,” he says.

Thomas enjoys being a loper, but his ultimate goal is to become a trainer. “I enjoy working here because everybody gets along,” Thomas says. “Even at Futurity time when we have early mornings and late nights, everybody pulls together to the best of their ability. For every horse that I get ready or any of my team members get ready, I want to see them do the best they can every time. As long as that happens, I’m happy.”