TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
The clip-clop of horse hooves fills the air as the heat of the summer sun beats down on the parched California earth. Dust blows with a gentle breeze that does nothing to cool the air, but everything to fill one’s mouth. The lowing of cattle echoes throughout the arena from various herds scattered around the plot.
Master Sgt. Tania McGuire, 349th Force Support Squadron first sergeant, takes a slow, deep breath to calm herself and her horse before she enters the arena.
McGuire is an amateur competitor in cutting, a western-style equestrian competition. Horse and rider work as a team before a judge or panel of judges to demonstrate the horse's athleticism and ability to handle cattle during a two and a half minute performance, called a "run." Each contestant is assisted by four helpers: two are designated as turnback help to keep cattle from running off to the back of the arena, and the other two are designated as herd holders to keep the cattle bunched together and prevent potential strays from escaping into the work area.
“Cutting is an amazing sport,” McGuire explained. “In every equine discipline that is ridden, the rider has control of the horse by their hands on the reigns and directs the horse to the areas they want to go, they have that constant control of them. With cutting horses, the only thing you get to use is your legs. You have to trust in that animal to do their job. Their bloodlines’ breed is to read cattle and understand them. The trainer’s job is to go in and perfect those movements. All we do is guide them to pick the cow we want and they do the rest, we just go for the ride. It’s all on the horse.”
As a child, McGuire was always fascinated with horses.
“I used to draw them; I used to pretend I was a horse,” she said. “If I was playing with Barbies or G.I. Joes, horses had to be involved.”
She grew up in Southern California in the Los Angeles suburbs. In her neighborhood was small lot with horses she would often walk to.
“I would just go down there and stare at them,” she said.
One day, the people who owned the lot saw her and asked if she wanted to ride them. The family also had a daughter around McGuire’s age, and they became close friends. Eventually, the family moved up north, but McGuire would still visit during the summers and ride the horses.
Growing up and into adulthood, McGuire dove deeper and deeper into the horse world, becoming involved in various aspects. She did Western Pleasure showing, worked in racing stables exercising the horses, and took care of Halter horses. McGuire toured the U.S. participating in shows and competitions.
Eventually, McGuire wound up in Texas and got a job as a loper at a cutting horse business. A loper is someone who grooms, prepares, and exercises the horses prior to shows.
One day, a trainer asked McGuire if she wanted to try cutting on a horse. She lept at the opportunity, and almost fell off.
“They are very quick,” she said. “They’ll go 190 miles-an-hour one direction, and stop and turn really fast going the other way.”
This was her first taste of the cutting horse world. For years, she worked as a loper, and ended up marrying a trainer.
“I got hooked on it,” she said. “I worked with some of the top stallions in the cutting horse world.”
One day, her marriage came to an end and she had to take a break from horses. And, with the break up, McGuire moved from Texas back home to California.
“I was burnt out from being with him and the stresses of his training,” she said.
The break only lasted about six months.
“Horses have always been my ‘woosah,’” she explained. “They help me de-stress and calm down. Whenever something would happen, I would go to horses. When you are riding a horse, you have to concentrate on what you are doing. You can’t dream off, because they are a 1,000-pound animal and you could get hurt.”
Finally, she met her current husband, and they made a deal since he knew her passion for horses. She bought a horse for her husband and just enjoyed having it.
“I wasn’t doing cutting, just some barrel racing,” she said. “I was just happy to have a horse back and have fun.”
Around this time she joined the Air Force Reserve, and due to the demands on her time, she had to sell him.
“He was a really good horse, and it just wasn’t fair to him to be kind of wasting away,” she said. “I was attached to him, but he went to a great family.”
Soon after, McGuire and her family bought a new house on a 19-acre property. They also bought a new horse, but not a cutting horse.
“I didn’t think I would ever join that world again,” she said. “It’s very expensive.”
The competitors in the cutting world she came out often had horses that ran in the price range of millions of dollars, she explained.
Then, the day came when she bought a new horse for her husband to ride.
“When I look at horses, I look at their breeding,” she said. “The lady I bought this horse from had mentioned it would be good for cutting. She planted the seed.”
She went to her son and asked if he could pretend to be a cow. She wanted to see if the horse could cut.
“And oh, he did,” she said.
Last year was the first time McGuire had shown in 13 years, and missed first place in her league by three points for the season. This year, she locked in the championship early on.
“The one thing I love about the cutting horse community is that it’s all over the world, but it is a tight knit community,” McGuire said. “They are like a family. Everybody takes care of each other. We’re all competing, but we all help each other.”
McGuire said this family aspect is a huge connection between the military world and horse world.
“There is this familial closeness in the cutting world, just like the military is my family,” she explained.
One of the key lessons she learned from working with horses that carried into her Air Force career is patience.
Working with horses, you need patience, she explained. It’s easy to get frustrated because they can be just like little kids at times.
“You’re going to fight with them; and you’re going to argue with them; and you’re going to go back and forth,” she explained. “I learned so much from the years I worked with horses on how to stay calm, cool, collected. Especially with emergencies that would happen.”
Likewise, in the military you learn patience in your work processes, McGuire said.
“I’m a maintainer by heart,” she said. “It’s easy to get frustrated with trying to work on an aircraft and things aren’t working right. Or, you don’t have patience because you want to go, go, go, and get things done, or you’re trying to rush things. You have to learn to calm down. Especially if there is a major incident and they gotta go. So, if you’re trying to get things done, and you don’t have that calmness in the storm, it’s going to affect how things are going to happen. So, I think being with horses as long as I have, that has taught me to stay calm when there is that storm that is just all around you.”
With a final deep breath, McGuire guides her horse forward to enter the arena, watching for the cow the judge had pointed out from the herd, ready to begin her run.