It all began when she was a little girl riding a stick horse.
Her love of horses has provided a lifetime of rewards to LeiAnn Waters. What began as a childhood pastime has turned into a lifestyle with many new friends made along the way.
Now a dream has come true for Waters as she finishes 2016 ranked No. 9 in the world among cutting horse competitors.
Where It All Began
The experiences that helped Waters become an elite competitor began early in life.
“Growing up in the country, my family always had a horse for me to ride and enjoy,” Waters said. “There are wonderful childhood memories of neighbors and cousins getting together to ride horses.”
Waters experienced a turning point when a friend invited her to ride horses at Jesse and Juanita Guthrie’s home in Benton. Jesse introduced her to team roping, which inspired a love of horse and cattle events.
That visit was the beginning of a lifelong friendship – and the start of a dream.
“Jesse and Juanita are very dear friends to this day, and we still get together to ride and enjoy our horses,” Waters said. “I was always drawn to cutting horses and would go watch this sport whenever I could.”
Cutting is a western-style equestrian competition in which a horse and rider work as a team before a 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." Contestants must make at least two cuts from the herd, one of which must be from deep inside the herd while the others can be peeled from the edges.
Cutting dates back to a time when ranchers hired cowboys to work and sort through herds of cattle out on the open range, separating those in need of branding or doctoring. From the open range to the indoor arena, cutting has grown into a widely recognized sport with sanctioned events.
Chasing Her Dream
“Competing had always been a dream for me until I turned 50,” Waters said. “I felt if I were going to chase some dreams, I needed to get going with it.”
Waters purchased her first cutting horse, a mare named Ruby, from Roy Heidel in 2014.
“Ruby was magical to ride, and I learned so much riding her,” Waters said.
In January of 2015, Waters entered her first National Cutting Horse Association event. Her goal in the first year of competition was to win an Achievement Buckle, which requires earning at least $2,000 in prize money. She achieved that goal in October of 2015.
Waters began 2016 riding a more finished horse named Rocker.
“I learned every time I rode to the herd,” she said. “I learned when I made mistakes, and I learned when I did well. Cutting is the most challenging sport I’ve ever tried, but I was hooked and wanted to do this. There are so many things you’re trying to do with yourself, your horse and the cow within the two and a half minute ride.”
Waters and Rocker were off to a strong start, but she experienced an unexpected setback in March when she had health issues that required a full hip replacement. The recovery process following surgery was intense, but Waters used her desire to return to competition as extra motivation.
“My horses were my inspiration to push myself with therapy,” she said. “With lots of hard work, I actually sat on my horse six weeks after surgery. I competed in Monroe, Louisiana eight weeks from surgery. Rocker and I never looked back.”
Making the Cut
The dream of making the Top 15 for the World Show, which is based on a competitor’s earnings for the year, was now within reach. Waters competed in her final competition. before the NCHA World Show on Nov. 13, and she was thrilled to be ranked No. 11 in the world.
Then she achieved her ultimate goal by competing in the NCHA World Show in Fort Worth, Texas, where she finished ranked No. 9.
“I competed two days, and riding in a place like this seemed like a dream for me,” Waters said. “But it was my dream and one I will cherish always. The friends made along the way, the hometown friends and my family have all been amazing with their support, encouragement and love. I’m so blessed to chase dreams like this.”
Now that she’s realized her dream, Waters has no thoughts of slowing down. In fact, she hopes to be in the saddle long after her days as an elite competitor are over.
“My love for horses is never ending, and I hope to be riding when I’m 80,” she said.