As a ranch kid growing up in North Dakota, Bill Zaharia’s recreation options were limited. His family ran a cow-calf operation and farmed small grains. Also they had horses, and from a young age, after school and on weekends, Bill relished saddling up and riding out, feeling the power beneath him as he and his favorite mount moved freely across the plains.
Though he rode broncs in high school and dreamed as many country kids do of competing some day in big arenas — not on rough stock, but on cutting horses — those ambitions were put on hold for a long time after he left home for school and, ultimately, the work-a-day world.
“I used to read ‘Western Horseman’ and see cowboys on cutting horses,’’ he said. “That was my dream.’’
What initially came true instead was a career in the automobile business. Selling new cars, taking trade-ins, fixing ones that needed fixing. Finally, in 1995, he bought his own dealership, a Ford and Chrysler “store,’’ as he calls it, in Ashland, Wis., hard by the southern shores of Lake Superior.
Great — though not exactly horse country.
“But in 2006 I bought another Ford and Chrysler store in Owatonna, Minn.,’’ Bill said. “It was soon thereafter I got back into horses.’’
His renewed equine interests didn’t come without a few saddle sores. He was, after all, 50 years old — not a kid anymore.
“It had been 25 years since I’d been on a horse, and I found out I had to learn to ride again,’’ he said.
Eventually, Bill would realize his youthful dream of riding cutting horses. First, however, he would dabble in reiners, then working cow horses, winning in 2014 and 2015 back-to-back reserve World Championships at the World Appaloosa show.
“It wasn’t until 2014 that I started riding cutters,’’ he said. “By the next year, I was into it pretty good. I didn’t miss a single day of a Minnesota Cutting Horse Association cutting.’’
Leveraging the help and good will of Minnesota trainers JP Bell, Bob Janssen and Dave Scribner, among others, Bill set out to demonstrate — if only to himself — that even a guy in his mid-50s, and beyond, could show a horse . . .
Among other honors, in 2017, he made it to the National Cutting Horse Association World Finals in Fort Worth in the $15,000 Amateur on Chucks Little Pepto. And in 2018, he returned to the World Finals, this time in the $35,000 Non Pro, finishing 6th.
His goal now is to ride his way back to the World Finals, and to win regional titles in the $50,000 Amateur. He has an indoor arena at home with a flag, and often he tunes his horses himself, while also regularly seeking the expertise, advice and horse-training skills of Bell and other trainers.
“What I like about cutting,’’ Bill said, “is that it’s technical, yet physical. There’s also a lot of variability built into it. It’s not easy. But that’s the challenge that makes cutting so addicting.’’
People interested in getting into cutting should seek a wide range of advice from the most experienced people they can find, Bill advises. The goal should be to buy a horse that’s not over a rider’s ability, or under it.
“I’m 60 now,’’ he said. “I can’t ride competitively indefinitely. But I’m going to make hay as long as I’m can.’’