AUBREY, Texas — Tom McCutcheon didn’t have to do much -- and that was the point.
He was sitting atop a brown horse worth more than a sports car when he lifted the rein in his left hand. Instinctively, the horse followed McCutcheon’s lead, beginning a slow turn to the left.
As McCutcheon kept inching his hand left, the horse sped up. And, after one full rotation, it was spinning like a top.
Then, swiftly and subtly as the movement began, McCutcheon clicked his tongue and brought the horse to a full stop.
“It's simple," McCutcheon said.
That 20-second display summed up a lifetime of work for McCutcheon and his family, which boasts some of the premier horse trainers and riders in the world.
The McCutcheons' specialty is a western discipline known as "reining," in which competitors perform a series of spins, stops and slides on their horses, and earn scores from judges based on their performances.
The less noticeable a rider's cues to their horse, the better the score.
Even in cowboy-loving Texas, many people don’t know much about the sport. Or, well, they didn’t. Not until the last few years, anyway, as reining -- and the McCutcheons -- ended up on one of the most-watched shows on television.
When "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan needed a few real-life cowboys to shoot a reining scene in Montana for the show's second season, he knew just who to call: The McCutcheons -- Tom, his wife Mandy and their kids Cade and Carlee.
Sheridan, a Texas native and longtime fan of reining, knows the McCutcheons well. He even keeps a few horses at the their ranch in Aubrey.
So, in the "Yellowstone" scene, he had Cade McCutcheon show a character named Jimmy how a professional gets his horse to slide. Then Mandy gets a slide in, too.
It's not the only time Sheridan has showcased the McCutcheons, either. His Paramount Network and CMT reality competition series "The Last Cowboy" chronicles the elite riding competition of horse reining and follows the McCutcheons and others as they work to grow the sport.
Sheridan also created the event The Run for a Million. Hosted in Las Vegas, it also aims to bolster the sport, featuring nine of the industry's most successful reining professionals, along with three wild card professionals, competing for a total purse of $1,000,000. In addition, there's a $100,000 shoot-out open to all reiners and their horses.
"Taylor has taken us to the masses," Tom McCutcheon said. "And there's a lot of people that have filtered into our business by seeing that and saying, "Hey, that looks fun!'"
But reining is far from a hobby for the McCutcheons. It's a sport, a business and a way of life, all wrapped into one.
And the McCutcheons are good at all three.
"This is what God gave us"
Spread out across 170 acres near Aubrey, north of Denton, the heart of the McCutcheon ranch is a sprawling covered arena where six-figure horses spin and slide across the dirt.
On one side sits an office and lobby, where the walls are decorated with dozens of ribbons and trophies, as well as framed pictures from championship celebrations.
"I mean, I’d much rather be an NBA player," Cade McCutcheon joked. "[But] this is what God gave us. Here we are."
And where they are -- where they’ve been -- is at the top of their sport.
Tom, Mandy, and Cade have all won world championships in National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) events. And Carlee has also had a fine start to her career in reining events, winning more than $75,000 last year.
Their career winnings as a family, meanwhile, total more than $5 million.
Recent results showed how lucrative the sport can be. When Cade McCutcheon won his world title in 2019, he finished with $569,595.74 in winnings. That same year, 14 other competitors earned more than $100,000 on the NRHA pro circuit.
In 2021 alone, Mandy McCutcheon won $190,881.63, leading all non-pros. And Carlee won $75,903.10, finishing eighth for the season.
On the professional side last year, Cade won $100,424.72, finishing inside the top 20.
And in the owners’ standings? Tom and Mandy finished in second place for the 2021 season, winning $237,003.34.
Combined, Tom and Mandy have earned some $5 million for their ranch.
And that's before even taking into account how the horses that the McCutcheons win with produce insane breeding earnings that are also remarkably lucrative to owners and the ranch.
The horse Tom won the World Equestrian Games on in 2010 has produced offspring that have won at least $4 million in competitive earnings.
What is reining?
But what is this sport? And what makes the McCutcheons so good at it?
They’ve mastered the skill -- the art -- of training their horses to do exactly what they need them to do, exactly when they need them to do it.
When done right, the cues to the horses are as subtle as possible.
"You just want to be able to do as much as possible without anybody knowing you're doing anything to them," Cade McCutcheon said. "That’s kind of my goal -- to make it look easy."
Reining, as a competition, is judged on each competitor and their horse doing a routine of spins, circles, stops and slides.
The spins are marked by the crispness in the turns and the sharpness in the stops. The slides are a wonder of speed and precision: A horse will run at full tilt, then suddenly drop into a slide, kicking up a cloud of dirt.
Part of these horses' training includes running toward an arena wall and stopping just in time, with only a few inches to spare.
So, what’s it like when the horse does exactly as it’s trained?
Tom compared it to a striping a golf ball 300 yards down the center of the fairway.
Mandy said it was like sinking a three-point shot in basketball.
"The rush of seeing a great horse with a great maneuver is what keeps everybody going," Mandy said.
Tom and Mandy McCutcheon have competed in reining for more than 30 years, going back to when they were both growing up in the Midwest. They've since married and moved to Texas, and now their kids are as involved in the industry as they are.
And none of the McCutcheons have any plans on slowing down any time soon.
"We feel very fortunate, very blessed, that both of the kids have the same passion for the horse business that we do," Tom said.
It's a business that’s booming -- thanks, in part, to a jolt of attention from "Yellowstone."
But, with or without a TV show, the McCutcheons would have kept their routine.
Train, win, repeat.
Said Mandy McCutcheon: "I don't think any of us could just walk away from it."