The terms are often used interchangeably, but there really is a difference – and I didn’t put a name to it myself until recently.
Most people have watched cutting competitions on TV or YouTube. In these events a yearling steer or heifer is cut out from a small group and the horse given free rein to swoop and dive, dramatically demonstrating his skill at holding the animal away from the herd. The arena is small and open, the footing is clean and level, and the critter is allowed to return to the herd after being played by the horse for a short time.
Indeed, we do a similar kind of cutting in the spring when we cut heavies from the “outside” bunch into the calving field. We feed a line of hay near the gate, ride slowly up and down until we identify a cow that is near to calving, nose her out of the bunch, then turn the horse loose to do his thing putting her out the gate.
But more often, we are sorting cattle: separating one class of animals from another. At branding time we sort off the cows from the calves, and we do that again in the fall.
Our sorting process is to have a couple of riders in the main corral, pinching out cattle in groups. Usually the cows are the more eager to escape the pressure, so we turn back the calves and let the cows string out up the alley. Another rider stands near the gate and lets the cows flow by. When the flow of cows slows down and a group of calves presents itself, the riders will turn the cows back and let the calves string out. The man in the gate will take a few steps to the side to block the outside gate and turn the calves into the catch-pen.
We did this in October when we vaccinated the calves, and we did it again a week later to split the calves off for weaning.
This week we sorted the calves again. First we split off the steers and turned them out, then we moved more into a ‘cutting’ mode to pull off those heifer calves that we will save to add back to the herd for replacement of those cows that are old, crippled, bad-bagged, or which have not re-bred.
Training these horses to be able to accomplish this cutting and sorting takes time. In fact I had ridden my Kentucky Colt for seven years before he finally settled down enough that we could do this kind of close-in corral work.
Of course all of our gates have “cowboy latches”, and all of our horses will work those gates. We can even sidle up and open our wire gates from all of our horses – which is expeditious when we have some cattle headed toward a gate and we want to get in and away before we lose them. We do, however, have to get off our horses to close those wire gates behind us.