“They’re just good for our souls,” said JP Bell, as he walked down the rows of horses currently being stabled at the Steele County Fairgrounds.

JP Bell and Apollo Creed

JP Bell, a well-respected cutter and soon-to-be Hall of Famers, preps 2021 World Champion cutting horse Apollo Creed. Bell and Apollo will be competing in the upcoming National Cutting Horse Association shows over the next two weekends at the Steele County Fairgrounds. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

The horses he was talking about, though, aren’t just any horses. These horses — costing upwards to a quarter million dollars — are cutting horses. And they are here in Owatonna to put on one heck of a show.

Both this weekend and next, the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) will be putting on competitions at the fairgrounds. Starting on Thursday, the Big Sky circuit — Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin — will be hosting the Amateur and Non Pro Extravaganza, beginning with cattle practice the first day and ending with the Senior World Tour on Sunday.

Next weekend, beginning on Thursday with cattle practice again, the Big Sky Circuit will be hosting NCHA Days throughout the weekend.

The history of cutting

But what exactly is a cutting horse, and why should the people of Owatonna want to journey down to the fairgrounds to check them out?

Cutting horse

During the cutting horse competitions, the horses “work” cattle, doing up to 60 stops and turns in less than three minutes. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

“You will not believe the athleticism on display,” Bell said. “Anyone and everyone will be able to see and appreciate that, and it’s fun — the sand will be flying.”

Bell, the promoter for the two events and owner of 57 Ranches Cutting Horses, explained the rich history of cutting horses, dating back to turn-of-the-century ranching. The horses, which are both expensive and highly trained, work livestock similar to a border collie herding sheep, cattle and other livestock.

“This sport is about recapturing our roots,” Bell said.

Currently residing in Duluth, Bell is born and raised a cowboy as a fifth-generation rancher and farmer. He has been in the cutting horse business — both in training and competing — for decades, and is the very first member of the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association to win $1 million. Bell will also be one of less than 100 individuals inducted into the NCHA Hall of Fame, and the first cutter north of Interstate 70 to receive such an honor.

Despite his impressive accolades, however, Bell said cutting is just as much a part of who he is as the name he was given.

JP Bell

JP Bell of Duluth is a fifth generation rancher and said cutting is not just a passion for him, it is a calling. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

“It’s not just my passion,” Bell said. “It’s my calling.”

Passing down the lifestyle to his 13-year-old twins, Jack and Jenna, Bell said both will be participating in the competition this weekend. Beaming with pride for his kids, both among the top 15 youth cutters and both heading to the Youth World Finals this year, Bell said they are a shining example of how cutting is truly for everyone.

Cattle pen

There will be free cattle practices on Thursday in preparation of the upcoming cutting horse competitions over the next two weekends. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

“It doesn’t matter your age or your gender — my daughter could end up competing against a 78-year-old man this weekend,” Bell said. “It is really all about the rider experience. One person may be here with a packed lunch and staying in their truck, while another may fly in on a jet.”

During the competition, Bell said the riders will have no reigns, controlling the horses with only their legs and feet, keeping their hands by their sides. Within the 150-second period of each horse being shown, Bell said they horse will make up to 60 turns.

“It’s like watching a dance between the cow and the horse,” Bell said.

Originally, the NCHA Days was the only show planned for Owatonna. After Bell said he realized the difficulty they would have in packing up from Waterloo, Iowa, this weekend and making the trek north, he reconveined with the Steele County Free Fair Board of Directors to see if they could double down on the shows here.

Radel Pavilion

Work on the Radel Pavilion began early Monday morning, preparing the arena for what JP Bell promises will be an exciting display of athleticism. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

“This is one of the nicest places we’ve ever been,” Bell said. “I’m really excited to be here and be able bring to big shows to Owatonna.”

Setting up for the show

While Bell and his crew have been all hands on deck since the beginning of the week, preparing for the back-to-back show weekends, they are not the only people working in the heat to make sure everything is in order.

Fair grounds crew

Scott Seykora operates the forklift as his young grounds crew sets up the 90 stables inside the Radel Pavilion at the Steele County Fairgrounds. The fair grounds crew was integral in setting up for the upcoming cutting horse shows. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

Scott Seykora, grounds and maintenance supervisor for the Steele County Free Fair, has been at the Radel Pavilion since Monday morning along with his crew of six young men. Together, they have been spreading sand and putting up 90 stalls for the horses to be stabled in.

“It will probably take us a total of 28 hours with me and the six guys to get all set up,” Seykora said. “This weekend we’ll be able to see how the show goes, it’s the first time anything like this has been in this facility, so we may have to make some changes before next weekend. But for the most part I think we will be good after this week.”

Fair grounds crew

Between Scott Seykora and his six young crew members, roughly 28 hours of labor will be put in this week to prepare for the cutting horse shows. (Annie Harman/southernminn.com)

Despite the young age of his crew, with a couple having freshly graduated high school and the others with only one year of the same work under their belts, Seykora said they have been able to tackle this project with positive attitudes.

“I’m really impressed so far with their work,” Seykora said. “None of them have done this part of the fair setup before.”

Reach Associate Editor Annie Harman at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @NewspaperAnnie. ©Copyright 2022 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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