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Cutting horses aim to improve lives of vets

Matt Johnson, cutting horse competition, Owatonna
For the first time ever, Matt Johnson, a military veteran from the Duluth area, competes in a cutting horse competition in Owatonna. Veterans are paired with youth in a unique program to help their mental health. Staff photo by Rick Bussler
Rick Bussler, Publisher
“Working with cutting horses saved my life.”
-John Moder, 7 Stars Program Facilitator

Spectators at this year’s Cutting Horse Show in Owatonna will be treated to something that has never happened before. Military veterans with little to no experience with horses are being paired up with youth in the ring.

It’s part of an effort by 7 Stars Ranch in Duluth to provide veterans the opportunity for personal growth and development as they acclimate themselves back to civilian life. John Moder, program facilitator for 7 Stars, is coordinating the program.

“This will help veterans who are really struggling to get back on their feet,” said Moder, who himself served in Iraq from 2008-2014 with the U.S. Army National Guard. “We want to get them back into the community and help them reengage,” he added.

Currently, there are eight veterans involved in the program, mostly from the Duluth area as well as Illinois. There is a variety of veterans, all with different branches of military service.

Each veteran, Moder said, is paired up with a child. “The youth are mentoring with an older veteran,” he said.

The veteran/youth team gains experience with high-speed stress environment where riders separate a single cow from a herd of cattle and prevent it from getting back to the herd. One of the desired qualities in a cutting horse is “cow sense,” described as an innate ability to read a cow, eye to eye, in anticipation of each move.

“It’s not all about going out and winning,” Moder said of the cutting horse competition. None of them, he stressed, have lifelong experience with horses.

Moder said it is especially challenging for veterans to go out and do something new like cutting horses. “We try to challenge them to step into the next part of their life,” he said.

On June 15 in Owatonna, Matt Johnson, a Duluth area veteran, took his first shot at cutting horses. Moder stood by to cheer Johnson on as he performed in the ring. “Incredible. It’s the best it could have gone,” Moder said of Johnson’s performance. “Talk about a deserving run.”

Cutting horses for veterans is looked upon as a suicide prevention program, said Moder, who speaks from his own personal experience. “I was in a suicidal spot,” he confides. “I was at my lowest point when I started this program in 2021.”

Moder credits his involvement with changing his life. “My life is measurably better in every single area,” he said. “Working with cutting horses saved my life.”

He also hopes to build a program for law enforcement and first responders.

“Our goal is to help build leaders to help improve the community,” Moder said. “It puts a lot of fuel in the gas tank for helping people.”

The final summer series show will take place at the Steele County Fairgrounds July 5 at 9 a.m. and July 6-7 at 8 a.m. Admission to the event is free.

For more information about the veterans program go to

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