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Loosening the reins

Chris Aiken, Pioneer Staff Writer

Roy Oliver grips the saddle horn as his gelding, “Rey’s Coppercat,” keeps a cut cow from rejoining the herd during an April 20 show in Laurel (CHRIS AIKEN / Big Timber Pioneer). 


On an early March afternoon, Roy Oliver saddles four cutting horses and begins work in the arena at CW Bar Ranch. His first pupil is a three-year-old stud with a sorrel coat and a tail streaked light and dark — “A lot of cutters have that coon tail,” Roy says.

He swathes the stud’s forelegs in black polo wrap, leads it into the arena and begins the warm up on a long trot, then a loping jog. 

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Roy, 29, grew up with horses but was not really drawn to them until his mother remarried a rancher when he was 11 or 12. Until then, Roy merely plied the hobbies of his biological father –  “an adrenaline junkie” –  who raced motorcycles by summer and snowmobiles by winter. 

At 25, hustling between ranch work in Utah and Oregon, Roy yearned for a new start –  “a new town where no one knew my name,” he says. 

He found work saddling and cleaning stalls at CW Ranch under trainer Jeremy Young, who rode cutting horses on the side. Roy starting going to shows to lope horses for Young and was quickly enthralled by the sport. 

“I didn’t know a dang thing about cutting,” he recalls, “but it lit a fire.”

In 2016, he signed up for his first show in Sheridan, Wyo., where he scored a 63. 

The Flag

After the warm up trot, Roy and the stud practice braking. Keeping the reins relaxed, Roy sinks his hips into the saddle and brings the horse to a dust-dispersing halt. It draws back, cocking its hind legs, then does an about-face at the tap of Roy’s boot. 

When Roy feels the horse “getting into” his feet, he sidles over to the fence and picks up a remote device, slipping it onto his pointer finger. It’s time to “work the flag.” 

Black and spherical, the flag looks like a punching bag zipping along the wall of the arena on an electric pulley system. Using his finger device, Roy changes the flag’s direction, causing it to strafe back-and-forth like a cow trying to rejoin the herd. 

Roy tries to get the horse to shadow the flag, guiding him with his feet and using as little rein as possible. By the time it reaches competition, the stud should lock onto its bovine target without any signaling from the rider. 

Flag work lasts anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the horse’s performance. 

“If he’s connecting I might quit right there, let him build confidence,” Roy says. “But always end on a good note.”

Today, the stud is not connecting. It’s rearing back, tossing its head over its shoulder and losing sight of the flag. Roy takes command of the reins and lopes him twice around the arena. 

“I’m not going to punish him, but I’m gonna make him work,” he says. “Pretty soon that flag doesn’t look so bad.” 

When they return to the exercise, the stud still has other ideas —  “like all teenagers,” Roy says. He takes control of the reins again and leads him through five turns before “giving him his head back.” 

Suddenly, the stud connects: Its turns are sharper and its head is low to the ground, dialed in. He mirrors the flag without overrunning it on turns. Roy gives him a pat on the neck, dismounts, and removes the polo wrap. Might need a day off, he says ponderously.

Strictly speaking, the horses don’t get many days off, though occasionally they get out of the arena to go on a jaunt in the surrounding hills. 

Frank Farley likes that about Roy: whether he’s getting ready for performance or strolling through coulees, “he really likes to ride, and you can see it.” Farley, owner of Snowy Mountain Quarter Horses, had been looking for a steady trainer for nearly three years when he first saw Roy ride in 2016. He was looking for someone with the same patience as his long-time trainer, Jimmy Phillips, who died from cancer three years before. 

Watching Roy handle a 2-year-old stud, Farley thought he recognized the patient hands he was looking for. 

“Something about them when he works the reins,” Farley says. “You don’t see him yanking and jerking like a lot of trainers do.”

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