Ranch sorting is the most recent addition to the ranch disciplines but has quickly eclipsed all the others in popularity, writes Philip Holliday. 


In America, the ranch horse discipline of ranch sorting is heading towards being a specialist discipline all of its own. Not surprising given that this team event showcases horse and rider working on a knife-edge between success and failure, and it can be quite a spectacle.


The time allocated for a go-round is just one and a half minutes, and you have to shift to get ten cows moved one by one in that time. No wonder that the last ranch sorting Championship Finals in the USA attracted thousands of spectators. The sorting is done by a team of two riders, who are presented with ten cows numbered 0 through to 9 and two blank ‘optional’ cows for a total of 12 cows at the beginning of a run.


Ranch Sorting


The Rules


The start/foul line is a 12ft wide opening between the two pens, with the cattle bunched in the centre of the pen on the back wall. The contest begins when the nose of the first horse crosses the line, and the judge drops the flag. As they do so, they call a random number from 0–9. The team must then sort the cattle in numerical order, beginning with the designated starting number, moving them from one pen to the other. They have a 90 second time limit with a 30-second warning.


The team who sort the highest number of cattle in the fastest time wins - and, believe it or not, two good horses can shift ten cows in less than 90 seconds if they know what they’re doing and work as a team.


A cow is considered sorted when it is completely across the start/foul line. The snag is that if any part of a sorted cow re-crosses the line, the team will be disqualified. Worse still, if any part of a cow that is out of numerical sequence crosses the start/foul line, that’s also a disqualification.


working cow horse



The trick is to make haste slowly. One rider lurks in or around the gap between the two pens (depending on his confidence in his mount to move quickly to where it’s needed). Far enough out of the gap to avoid discouraging a cut cow from approaching but near enough to jump in and stop any stray cow that’s coming along with its mate.


The rider crossing the line into the pen with the cows must quickly spot the number he’s after and firmly but calmly cut it away from the herd and push it into the other pen. Rushing in and aggressively chopping at the cow will only upset the herd, and in no time you’ll have cows running in all directions one of which will almost certainly be across the start/foul line if your teammate doesn’t jump in quickly!


Having cut the first cow, the idea is to head it as quickly as possible into the other pen; this is best done by working the cow against the fence. That way it just finds the gap and walks through it – the other member of the team having stepped out of the way to let it through. The ‘gap man’ then has to have eyes in the back of his head because he has got to be at the start/foul line to help with the cut while simultaneously making sure that the cows already sorted into the other pen, don’t get it into their heads to nip back and join their mates. They can be stubborn little chaps and, with the herd instinct being strong, will quickly duck under the nose of a horse that isn’t dancing in front of them. It’s this propensity for chaos and thus ‘sudden death’ that makes ranch sorting such a good spectator sport. A team can have eight or nine cows sorted and then simply lose it by getting a cow in the wrong place at the wrong time.


When it’s going well, there is a rhythm to it that has each rider taking turns to cut a cow and push it into the other pen with the momentum of the sort - the movement at the gap being enough to keep the sorted cows where they’ve been put. You need a couple of good horses and riders working as a team. If no team has managed to sort all the cows, the scores are worked out on who has shifted the most in the allocated time. Depending on the day and how this contest fits into the programme, there will usually be three go-rounds for each team, with the score being worked out on the total number of cows each team has sorted or, if it’s a good day, on each team’s accumulated times. To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t achieved that happy situation in England yet, but we’ve got some good teams out there and the day isn’t far off!