It's 7:30 a.m. and daybreak creeps over the flat, South Texas landscape. An unusually brutal January wind throws arena dust in my eyes, penetrating the two coats I'm wearing. Tied to the exterior wall of a huge, solid round pen, a dozen horses turn their backs to the wind. I'd like to do the same, but it's tough to conduct an interview that way.
Inside the pen, two assistants and two-time National Cutting Horse Association world-champion trainer Kathy Daughn are into their daily routine of preparing horses for top competition. Their focus is intense and none of them seems to notice the bitter weather.
Kathy, whose voice carries well despite the wind, fills me in on the horse she's riding as they work a cow.
"This mare is a 4-year-old full sister to Shaken Flow called Star Of The Flow (or âFlo Jo'). Right now, she's mentally and physically in junior-high school," she explains. "If we want her to graduate from college, she has to learn to accept pressure."
By "college," Kathy means the tough competition at NCHA's upper reaches.
"It'll take more time with a consistent, intense program to get her ready for that level of competition," Kathy adds. "She has to learn to handle crowds and bad cattle, and still get the job done. Flo Jo has lots of talent, but that's not enough. To win at the big events, she has to be well-educated."
Kathy's next mount is a 3-year-old Royal Fletch filly. Royal Fletch (by Jae Bar Fletch and out of Royal Blue Dually) was the 2000 NCHA Futurity champion Kathy rode.
"This is a very nice filly, and we think a lot of her," Kathy says. "She's just beginning her education and is in elementary school right now. She's learning how to use her body and the athletic ability bred into her. It'll take the full two-year program to make a finished cutter out of her."
Kathy and her assistants ride the horses in her training program five or six times a week, with one day off for turnout. However, that doesn't mean the horses are worked on cows every day.
"Sometimes we just ride them around the ranch to give them a mental break," she explains.
The key to winning with any athlete, Kathy insists, is a combination of consistency, commitment and conditioning.
"The horse has to know the boundaries, and know what behavior is acceptable and what's not," she shares. "We teach that through repetitive patterning. Muscle memory is necessary to get that instantaneous response in the pen."
Kathy explains that over time, horses learn to read cattle and respond based on what they're taught.
"These horses are bred to work cows," she explains. "Through training, we enhance their natural ability."
Read the complete story in the June issue of Western Horseman.