As she watched other high schoolers help kick off the New Mexico High School Finals Rodeo, Leia Pleumer was getting some harrassment from a Smoker.
Pluemer's horse, called "Smoke" for short, kept sniffing at her decorated back number, each time causing the Hope Christian High School senior to turn around and lightly bat his nose with disapproval.
But in the arena, horses and riders were all business as it was time to cut a calf.
"I enjoy being out there," Pleumer said, "and know that he'll work hard."
The cutting competition, an eight-person affair that ended in less than an hour at the Curry County Events Center, offered solid if somewhat inconsequential competition.
The top four finishers in each event during the state finals rodeo move on to the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyo. With only four boys and four girls competing, and everybody starting even at the national rodeo, the only thing at stake Thursday afternoon was a saddle for first place and pride.
"It's a pretty good feeling," said Josh Fish, a 2012 graduate of Dora High School. "You've got nothing to lose, you get to go for the gold."
The knowledge that you're going to Rock Springs regardless, LeighAnn Scribner of Moriarty said, is no reason to slack off.
"You already know that you're going to nationals. But you don't let that affect your job, or you're going to lose a cow."
The event has roots with early cattle ranchers, where a cutting horse was used to separate or cut cows from a herd for individual tasks like vaccination.
"It shows the best in horses," said Bryce Howe of Tatum.
Competitors get 2:30 to separately cut three cattle from a herd. In a good run, the cattle tries to get back to the herd, but the horse and rider cut them off at every angle until the calf gives up. A competitor starts with a base score of 70, and can either gain or lose points depending on technique.
Depending on the spectator, it feels like either the horse and calf in a dance, or the horse is a linebacker trying to prevent the calf running back from gaining a yard.
"It will give you a rush when you get your horse set just right," Chace Valdez of Estancia said. "The horse does everything for you; you just have to sit on its back."
For Krista Turner of Hobbs, this is the entire rodeo; she's only a cutter. But the challenge of communicating to the horse while the horse is communicating with the calf, and the camaraderie of a small cadre of competitors, is a good experience in itself.
"My first time, I was really shy and I didn't know the girls," said Turner, who keeps a pack of bubble gum with her horse, Okay Swinging, at all times to help calm her nerves. "All of them came up to me and made me feel like I was one of them. It's made it a lot easier for me to fit in."
For Pace Marchand of Albuquerque, who found home schooling advantageous this year for his daytime practice schedule, cutting is mostly there to make him better at team roping and calf roping — events where he hopes to do well enough to garner a second or third interview later in the week.
"It helps me ride better, it helps me be a better horseman in my other events," Marchand said. "Also, I'm really competitive; it doesn't matter if it's rodeo or chess or anything."
Holly McGlasson of Aztec said one of her favorite aspects is the variety involved.
"It's different every time," McGlasson said. "The horse does something different, or the cow does something different, or you do something different. It makes it interesting."