While there aren't many genuine cowboys around -- those herding cattle for a living -- popular cattle herding games give Western riders a taste of the activity and a chance to win money and prizes. These games require all the skills of a working cowboy or cowgirl and cow horse.
Team penning consists of three riders separating out numbered cows and herding them into a pen in a minute or less. The announcer gives out the cow's number, and the game begins. Regulations do not permit horses or the rider to touch the cow. Each member of a team has their own task, whether to drive the cow forward, block her from returning to the herd or overshooting the pen or chase her back into play.
Team sorting, also known as ranch sorting, owes its roots to basic ranch work. On a working ranch, cattle must be separated into pens for vaccinations, castration and branding prior to shipping. In team sorting, a team of two riders must work together to separate the correct 10 cattle -- identified by number -- and get them into the pen, while keeping the other cattle out. Riders are working against the clock to get the cattle sorted in time.
Where to Play
Team penning and team sorting don't require a great deal of equipment, other than access to a large arena and portable pens. However, they do require access to cattle, preferably different cattle for regular playing. You can keep cattle for the specific purpose of team penning and sorting, but these animals soon learn the ropes and run directly into the pens -- not much sport there. Local clubs often sponsor team penning events, especially those affiliated with national organizations such as the American Quarter Horse Association. Good players can compete on the state, regional and national levels, divided into age groups.
You Need The Right Horse
To successfully compete in any of these cattle herding games, you need the right horse. Even if your goal is just to have fun, you need a horse that doesn't become unglued at the sight of cattle. While quarter horses and similar stock-type equines are most often used, that doesn't mean a thoroughbred, Arabian or other breed with a good mind can't do well. Keep in mind that horses in these games must be able to "turn on a dime" -- that rules out many larger, heavier horses who can't move that quickly. Before trying team sorting or penning, introduce your horse to cattle. While some horses initially freak out if they've never seen these beasts before, most will calm down and training can proceed.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.