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Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started with Team Penning

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Working cattle while on a horse can be a thrilling experience for many riders. Some horses just thoroughly enjoy moving cows and the sport of team penning has allowed these horses and their riders the opportunity to compete in an event that they truly love.

If you and your horse have an affinity for working cows, team penning might be the perfect sport for you both. Getting started in team penning requires a lot of patience, practice and a willingness to learn. The team penning community is very accommodating and supportive to beginners in their sport.

team penning event
Photo By Cgoodwin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

What is team penning? Team Penning is a timed event that involves 3 riders and their horses riding as a team to move 3 specifics cows out of a herd and into a pen on the other side of the arena. This has to be done in less than 60 seconds. The objective is to be the quickest team to pen all 3 cows.

Things You and Your Horse Should Know

To be successful at team penning, your horse must first be comfortable around cattle and be willing to work cattle. There are some horses that just do not like being around cows at all and these horses will not be very good team penning horses.

If you have a horse that is comfortable around cows, then you will need to work with them extensively on quick turns, learning to spin on their back legs and learning to work out a single cow from a herd of cattle.

Some horses are bred specifically for this and are known as cutting horses, but you don’t have to have the perfect breeding or highest dollar horse to compete. Granted, having a horse bred for cutting and working cattle will give you a great advantage, but as a beginner, just having a good horse that wants to work cattle is a great start.

a junior cutting out in a campdraft
A junior cutting out in a campdraft, Walcha, NSW Photo by User:Cgoodwin [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

While your horse does a lot of the work in team penning, it is up to you to understand how cows think and move. This will allow you to make decisions and direct your horse based on what you can see in front of you.

A cow is notorious for slipping out of tight spots and they can easily fool a novice rider on the direction they intend on running. It is imperative for you to spend an ample amount of time simply watching cows and their actions when being worked by horses. Simply observing cattle and the way they move will give you an advantage while riding.

Rules You Should Know

As with any sport, it is the rules that make the game a true competition and test of skills. At the beginning of a team penning run, a herd consisting of 3 sets of ten cattle wearing numbers 0-9 will stand at one end of the arena. At the other end of the arena, there will be an empty pen with one open side.

The three rider and horse combinations will enter the arena and wait for a flag that tells them the herd is settled and the arena is ready. The announcer will call out their number and the time will start as soon as the first horse crosses the start line. The team then takes turns cutting out their cattle from the herd.

The goal is to cut out all 3 cows wearing the assigned number, move them across the arena and push them into the pen. The second the 3 cows are all completely in the pen, at least one rider will have to cross over the opening of the pen and raise their hand to stop the time. They are allowed to call for time with only 1 or 2 of the cows in the pen, but they will place lower in ranking than a team that pens all 3.

When penning their cattle, riders must also make sure that the remaining cattle are across the start line with the rest of the herd. Many sanctioned events, those that require membership and offer a finals at the end of the season, do require riders to adhere to a dress code. Typically, this is western attire including a western shirt, jeans and boots, but a cowboy hat is usually not required.

Here is a good video of a team penning run:

Rules to Keep Cattle Safe During Team Penning Events

  • Riders are not allowed to make physical contact with the cattle nor wave any type of accessory or equipment at them.
  • Riders are also not allowed to intentionally run over the cattle with their horse or they will receive a ‘no time’.

A ‘no time’ is given whenever a team fouls out for any violating a rule or not penning the cows in the allotted time.

Team Penning Arena Layout
Team Penning Arena Layout

What is the difference between Team Penning and Sorting? Team penning requires riders to isolate 3 specific cows from the herd and moved to a pen. Team sorting requires riders to move numbered cows, in order, across the start line. The starting number will be randomly chosen for each team.

The Basics of Team Sorting

If you are familiar with team penning, you may have heard of a similar event known as sorting. While team penning involves the use of the whole arena, in sorting there are 2 smaller round pens of equal size connected by an opening the middle.

Instead of 30 cattle, there are only 11 or 12 cows that start off standing in one of the pens. Ten cows will be wearing numbers 0-9, and one or two additional cows will have no number at all. In the other pen, 2 riders will stand waiting to begin their run.

smaller round pens for team penning
Photo by ReservoirHill – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

Once the herd is settled, a judge will hold up a flag. Once the first horse crosses over the start line, the opening between the pens, the time will start and the announcer will provide the teams assigned number. The objective of sorting is to cut out each numbered cow consecutively, starting with the one called out by the announcer.

Each number must cross the start line in to the other pen in consecutive order.

The one or two cows with no numbers are referred to as ‘trash’ cows.

These cows cannot cross the start line or your team will be fouled out. You also can’t let an out of  consecutive order cow cross the line either, or your team will receive a ‘no time’. Here is a video of a good team sorting run.

Sorting is similar to penning in that it involves cutting out numbered cattle, however, it is a completely different sport and there are only two riders instead of three. Your horse has to be able to sort cattle in a smaller and much more confined space than it does in team penning. Both sports are equally competitive and many riders who participate in one will also participate in the other.   \

Team Penning Divisions Available

Each event and association offer different divisions during their event, but their set up is designed to support and encourage beginners in the sport. Riders are often ranked according to their placing at previous events. More experienced riders are usually ranked higher, while less experienced riders with fewer wins will be ranked lower.

The class divisions will be set up so that in certain classes only riders with lower rankings can participate. Other divisions will be set up so that higher ranked riders have to ride with at least one lower ranked rider in order to participate in that class.

This ensures that lower ranked riders have an equal opportunity to place and have the chance to ride with more experienced riders. There will also be open classes that will allow any riders regardless of rank to ride together.

How to Win Money in Team Penning

To win in team penning, your team will have to have penned the most cattle in the least amount of time. When you go to a team penning event, you will find plenty of penners willing to sign up and ride with you, especially higher ranked riders needing a lower ranked rider to team up with them in a particular event.

Every team and every ride is different. Sometimes you get lucky, draw a great number, get super easy to handle cows and your team gets a quick time. Sometimes the opposite happens and your team ends up with a no time.

The excitement and fun of team penning is that anything can happen. A novice rider could easily end up on the winning team. The key is to know the rules of the game, understand how to cut out and effectively move a cow, have a great horse and be able run your horse when needed. Understanding the goal of penning and being where you need to be a the right time is imperative to giving your team the best chance at winning.

working cow horse photo by Montanabw
Working Cow Horse Photo by Montanabw [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Where to Look for Competitions

There are a number of team penning associations across the country that hold events in various different states. Listed below are just a couple of them. Most events can be found online and you can review their rules as well as their event calendar.

Most of them offer day passes if you aren’t ready to join their annual membership. Once you have made some team penning buddies, they will help you find events that are closer to you.

United States Team Penning Association

Events held in Texas, Oklahoma, California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, and Louisiana.

Dixie Region Team Penning Association –

Events held in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Team penning is an exciting sport that really tests your and your horse’s ability to work together for a common goal. It is a sport that requires team work between multiple riders participating in a kind of dance that is truly remarkable to watch. The fact that team penning associations tend to encourage beginners and want them participate is a true testament to the sport itself. If you have any interest in team penning or sorting, you should definitely look into getting started either sport. You won’t regret it.  

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