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 its clothes in the arena, and so far this season she has pulled in more than $53,000 in prize money); rather than attend school, she squeezes in homeschool lessons; and in place of passive greetings, she often responds to routine questions like “How are you doing?” with a ranking number. She can act remarkably mature—such as when she strokes her chin and discusses the finer points of taking a horse to stud—and since she’s often on the road, McKenzie spends more time with her parents than most adolescents would tolerate. In fact, of all the people she knows, she says her stepfather is the coolest.
Together with Robert, who is considered one of the top cutting-horse trainers in the world, and her mother, Connie, a former ballet dancer, McKenzie logs between 40,000 to 80,000 miles a year in the family’s red Freightliner truck on the way to and from cutting competitions. At these events, from morning to night, she is either feeding, washing, riding, or competing on a horse. It may be a hard life, but to hear McKenzie tell it, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I couldn’t sit very long at a desk,” she says, “and I don’t ever want to live in a city. I love traveling and watching the scenery from the truck.” She’ll grudgingly acknowledge that she works harder than most kids, but she says she enjoys the rewards of a less normal life. For now, McKenzie doesn’t feel as though she’s missing out on anything, really. All she wants is to be the best, and her proximity to greatness is so intoxicating that the alternatives seem dull.
IN CONTRAST TO MOST COWBOY DISCIPLINES, cutting requires more instinct than athleticism or brute strength. There is no tackling or roping. There is no riding of animals whose genitals are strung up and yanked to make them buck. Instead, competitors are judged on a scale of 60 to 80 for their ability to separate at least two cows, one at a time, from a small herd in two and a half minutes. Sounds easy, but once a competitor separates a cow (in the sport, both steers and heifers are referred to as “cows”), she must sit between it and the herd, facing down her opponent like a linebacker does a running back. So strong is the cow’s instinct to rejoin its herd that when isolated, it will sometimes pee, spew snot, and run like hell—often charging the horse and rider—to try to get back with the group.
It’s fitting, then, that the highest compliment a cutting competitor can receive is to be told that he or she “has cow.” Having cow (not to be confused with “having a cow”) means that you are an expert in reading bovine body language. You are able to interpret a cow’s tail angles and twitches and head twists and gait changes, all of which can help you anticipate when it wants to go right or left, when it is getting mad, when it is about to charge, and when it is ready to give up. Most important, having cow means you can maneuver a thousand-pound horse to cut a cow off no matter how hard it tries to fake you out or how intent it seems on knocking you over. “You’ve got to know where it’s going next,” says Robert, “and some people can do that better than others.”
It was Robert who first discovered that McKenzie had cow. Four years ago she mostly refused to get near horses. She was afraid to ride and showed little interest in taking part in the profession of her new stepfather. But one day, after her mom had left for a ten-day vacation, McKenzie came out of the house from lunch to clean the stalls, and Robert stopped her on