Team Penning: A Beginner’s Guide To Getting Started In The Sport

The other day I was talking to a friend about different western disciplines when she asked me what team penning was. When I told her about the sport she said that it sounded really exciting and wanted to know more. I had a quick look online but couldn’t find any articles to point her toward so decided to write one myself. 

Team penning is a fast pace sport where teams of three riders compete to sort cattle and move them from one end of the arena into an open pen at the other end as quickly as possible. In order to do well riders have to work together but also be fast and organized.

Being a timed event a lot of emphasis is placed on speed but there’s much more to team penning than just riding flat out. As well as having a sensible horse that is happy around cattle you also need to have a good understanding of how cows behave too. Read on to find out more about this fast-paced sport.

What is team penning?

If you’ve never heard of team penning you might be wondering what it’s all about but the best way of describing the sport is to say it’s like sheep dog trails but with horses and cows instead of dogs and sheep. Okay so I admit that doesn’t really tell you much about the sport but it does give you a rough idea. 

Originating on a Ventura County ranch in the 1940s, team penning is a timed event involving three riders (known as penners) and their horses competing to cut three specific yearlings out of a herd of thirty cows. The goal is to move just those three cows into a pen at the other end of the arena in less than 60 seconds (although this is increased to 90 seconds in novice events).

What you need to know about team penning

Like so many equestrian disciplines, team penning isn’t one of those sports where you can just rock up on the day without any prior knowledge and expect to do well. It’s true that, with a fair amount of luck, you can win the first time you compete but there are still some things you need to know and understand beforehand. 

To start with you’ll need to be patient, put in practice, and be willing to learn, but on top of that you’ll also have to be relaxed around cattle and have a horse that’s happy to work with them too. Not all horses are comfortable around cows, although some will have a natural cow sense. If you’re serious about the sport then you’ll need a cutting horse (one that has been bred and trained to ‘cut’ cattle from a herd), but if you’re just starting out then any horse that’s sensible around cows will be suitable.

While it’s the horse that does the majority of the work it’s also essential that you know and understand how cows move and think. That might sound daft but cows can easily slip out of tight spots and trick novice riders if they not paying attention or don’t know what to expect. Watching cows and working with them will give you a good idea of what will happen.

What are the rules of team penning?

Team penning involves three herds of ten young cows (mature cows and bulls aren’t allowed) that are either numbered 0 to 9 or have different colored collars. The herds are at one end of an arena with an open pen (measuring 16’ x 24’ with a 10’ opening) at the other end.

A team of three riders, or penners, will then enter the arena and wait for a flag to tell them the cows are settled. As soon as the flag is raised they’re ready to begin but the timer doesn’t start until the lead rider crossed the start (or foul) line. At the point the flag is lowered, the clock starts ticking and an announcer will call out the numbers (or the collar colors) of the cows that need to be separated.

The team then cut out the correct cows and move them to the open pen while the other two riders keep the rest of the herd (known as trash or dirty cattle) together. The goal is to cut all three cows and move them to the open pen within 60 seconds.

Once the cows are in the pen one of the riders will have to cross the open gate and raise their hand to call time and the timer will then be stopped. You can call time before you have all three cows in the pen but you’ll be penalized and placed below teams that managed to get all three cows in.

The team that managed to get all of the cows into the pen in the quickest time will be declared the winner.

While that might seem pretty straightforward you will be disqualified if more than four trash cows cross the foul line at any time or if you physically touch the cows or wave any accessory or equipment at them. If you run over a cow with your horse and it’s deemed that it was intentional then you’ll also be disqualified.

Is ranch sorting the same as team penning?

Some people think that ranch sorting is just a different name for team penning but while the disciplines do share a lot of similarities there are a few key differences. To start with team penning involves teams of three riders while ranch sorting only has teams of two riders.

The other difference is that while team penning involves thirty cows, ranch sorting involves eleven or twelve cows. Unlike team penning where you only need to move three cows, with ranch sorting ten need to be moved but it’s not quite as simple as just moving ten. At the start, the announcer will call out a random number and that’s the first cow that needs to be moved, with the rest being moved in numeric order until all ten are in the other pen.

The table below will give you a quick overview of the differences between the two sports.

Team PenningRanch Sorting
Riders on a team32
Cows in involved3011-12
Cows needing sorting310
Number of trash cows271-2
Number of pensOne open penTwo joined round pens
Pen size (in feet)16’ x 24’Two 50’ to 60’ pens connected
with 12’ to 16’ opening
Differences between team penning and ranch sorting

What are the divisions in team penning?

A rider’s rank is determined by how well they’ve done in previous events and as you’d expect experienced riders are ranked higher than novice riders but that doesn’t mean they don’t get a chance to compete together.

There are four divisions (or classes) in team penning, professional, novice, mixed and open and which one you take part in will be decided by your rank. As you can imagine, professional classes are exclusively for higher-ranked riders while only lower-ranked riders can enter novice events. Open classes allow anybody to enter but mixed classes require an experienced rider to ride with at least one lower-ranked rider. This gives lower-ranked riders an equal opportunity to get a place and have a decent chance of winning.

Want to give team penning a go?

If you’re keen to give team penning a go then there are a lot of places that offer beginner or novice clinics where you can learn the basics as well as meet other like-minded peers and possible competition partners.

Once you’ve decided you want to actually compete at an event I’d recommend starting with the United States Team Penning Association (USTPA). Not only are they the governing body for the sport but they also do a lot of work to promote the sport and encourage new riders to take part. They organize events across the states and will help you get started.

While some events do require you to be a member of the USTPA you can buy a day pass which allows you to complete without having to pay for an annual membership; perfect if you’re not sure if the sport is right for you.

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Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
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  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
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Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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