The tango of hooves stirred up all manner of hollers and yips from the swath of denim-clad spectators sitting atop bleachers and saddles at Hardy Murphy Coliseum.
The calf was spry from the start, spraying red dirt at the corral of cowboys, as it juked back and forth, charging toward daylight and a spot in the herd.
But at each turn, Overbrook rancher James Payne and the horse he’s trained for four years pulled two hooves ahead, pouncing like a jungle cat to mirror the calf, cutting it back toward the center of the arena.
The horse’s wits and speed tired the calf out, eventually, and Payne’s reign drew the most robust ovation of the Monday afternoon competition at the Non Pro plus the Open Cutting competition, the largest of its kind in the United States
After the performance, the crowd and judges proved to be on the same page.
The veteran cutting horse from Marietta and its rider from Overbrook put up a 227. A high score for the competition as of 5 p.m. Monday.
Payne credited the four-legged athlete for the record ride.
“Very, very nice and very, very smart horse — he pretty well took care of me,” Payne said of the 227 performance. “The calf put him in bad spots, but he kept up. I was just holding on.”
After four years of training, seeing the fruits of his labor displayed at the Hardy Murphy Coliseum was a gratifying feeling, Payne said.
In what will be the last Non Pro of its career, the horse owned by Marietta’s Brenda Armstrong rose to the occasion.
Payne and PG, representing Southern Oklahoma on Southern Oklahoma dirt, was a cut above the nation’s best.
If they’re lucky, the 227, the best score all week, will hold up through the night and maybe longer.
“It’s darn sure the best run we’ve had in four days here,” event announcer Tom Holt said.
The horse has racked up over $158,000 in NHCA earnings as of April. After the 227, it could be taking in more prize money, soon.
But Payne said there’s a lot of good horses from far and wide that could make things interesting for the local cutters.
“We’ve got a half dozen or so of the top 20 horses in the country here,” Holt said. “They say horse racing is the sport of kings, but all those horses have to do is run in a straight line and turn left. The horses here have to think. They have to be fast and smart. Cutting is a dance. These horses are elite.”
Since Friday, trucks, trailers and RVs with license plates hailing from across the United States have filled the gravel outside Hardy Murphy Coliseum and Ardmore hotels.
For many of the best amateur and non-professional riders and horses the country has to offer, the parking lots and hotels will be their home for the week.
But Payne and PG Heavily Armed, hailing from Overbrook and Marietta respectively, will sleep in the comforts of their own bed and barn Monday night. A perk of the Non Pro moving from Oklahoma City to Ardmore this year for the first time since the event began in 1987.
“The hometown advantage is sleeping in your own bed,” Payne said. “Hard to beat a good night’s sleep.”
Payne has competed in the Non Pro annually since he started training, starting around 1996. He opened Payne Ranch in Overbrook back in 2006.
What separates Pro from Non Pro events aren’t just the professional statuses of the riders, it’s also the tone of the event. Most of the riders have regular jobs. But they ride for fun.
And while it’s not in the big city this year, Payne said the 2018 version of the Non Pro has kept up the spirit in its new home in Ardmore.
“Bringing all the Non Pro amateurs together, it’s always a good time,” Payne said. “People from all over come here, it’s always big but it’s laid back. Della Hillerman creates an event that’s enjoyable and pleasant. That’s carried over.”
He said while OKC has glitz, Ardmore has been an open and eager host.
“Bringing back the event, it’s good for the sport and I think it’s good for Ardmore,” he said. “Oklahoma City, it’s a big city used to hosting big events but it’s closed off. Ardmore wants it and I think [the city] is making it clear. They are trying really hard.”
The Non Pro plus the Open Cutting event will run through June 17 from 8 a.m. until approximately 8 p.m. daily. To see a complete daily schedule of events visit www.nchadella.com.