ONE OF THE FEW THINGS THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD McKenzie Mullins likes more than squeezing a horse’s nose is messing with its lower lip. “It’s all about the lip,” she told me one morning last summer, standing in her family’s stables, in Gordon, which house seventy horses, including Twister, Swingin’, Bully, Fancy, Player, Lizzie, Plagiarism, and Snoopy. When we’d arrived, McKenzie had hopped up onto a fence and waved to the horses with the enthusiasm of somebody entering a giant family reunion. “Hello, Gordo!” she yelled. Gordo looked up and shook his mane. “Hey, Earless!” she yelled to another one. “That’s Earless Arless. He likes to have his ears scratched.” Then she tiptoed up to a horse that was falling asleep—one leg bent, its big face relaxed, its lower lip beginning to sag and quiver. She reached up, tugged on its lip, and the horse twisted its face like an annoyed Mr. Ed. McKenzie giggled hysterically.
Seeing this, it is easy to forget that McKenzie Mullins is one of the greatest cowgirls in the world. Physically she is slight. She stands five-feet-three, weighs 95 pounds, and wears size 0 slim jeans. Pink rubber bands cover her braces, and her freckled cheeks retain a ten-year-old’s plumpness. But last year, at the end of the 2002 season, McKenzie became the youngest competitor ever to enter the open division of the National Cutting Horse Association ( NCHA) World Championship Finals—the Super Bowl of cutting. Taking second place, she beat out her sixty-year-old stepfather, Robert Rust, a two-time world champion and NCHA hall of famer, as well as several men four times her age with barrel chests and Clint Eastwood squints who could probably bench-press her with one arm. This season she has continued her streak, maintaining second place on an otherwise adult-dominated circuit, and this month, she will compete again in the World Finals, in Amarillo.
To compete at such a high level, McKenzie is on the road nearly 250 days out of the year, and she has forfeited childhood as we normally conceive of it: She earns enough money that she could live on her own if she wanted (she has a sponsorship contract with Wrangler to wear