Ranch Sorting – it’s the latest thing

Ranch Sorting
Newest Ranch Horse class

Ranch Sorting is the most recent addition to the Ranch Horse disciplines but has quickly eclipsed all the others in popularity. In America, it’s now heading towards being yet another specialist discipline all of its own. Not surprising really, because it’s a team event and a successful pairing work it on a knife edge. Controlled speed equals success but one cow in the wrong place at the wrong time and it’s game over. The time allocated for a go-round is just 1 ½ minutes and you have to shift to get 10 cows moved one by one in that time. 


The Ranch Sorting arena is laid out as shown in the sketch below. The sorting is done by a team of 2 riders who are presented with ten cows in the arena numbered 0 through 9 and two blank cows optional for a total of 12 cows at the beginning of a run.

The start/foul line is a 12 ft 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 start/foul line. The judge drops the flag and as he does so, he calls a random number from 0 – 9. The team must then sort the cattle in numerical order beginning with the designated starting number to move them from one pen to the other. They have a 90-second time limit with a 30 second warning.

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

The Rule
  1. The team sorting the highest number of cattle in the fastest time wins. A team that sorts cattle in two goes beats any team that sorts cattle in only one go. A team sorting cattle in three goes beats any team sorting cattle in only one or two goes. All ties will advance to the next go or tie breaker run.
  2. Singles sort ten cows with any one cow eligible to be a cow sorted out of sequence without penalty.
  3. Second goes will run in reverse order from the first go. The fastest fifty percent of team entries will compete the second and final go. (Optional)
  4. Any re-ride given by the judge will begin with the same sorted cattle in the sorted end of the arena and the same time on the clock as when the judge stopped the clock. The judge may grant re-rides if one of the following events occurs:
  5. a non-sorted cow escapes the arena;
  6. A cow’s life or health is in jeopardy as determined by the judge;
  7. A cow becomes unidentifiable during the run (e.g. a number comes off); or
  8. An official or mechanical error occurs.

In the event of any of the above occurring, the team will have the option of the following:

  1. accept the number of cattle sorted at the occurrence, as the number of cattle sorted in the maximum time allowed (the team score); or
  2. ask immediately for a re-ride.
  3. If a team observes a cow that is injured unworkable or unidentifiable, they may request the judge to replace the number before the run begins. The Judge’s decision is final.
  4. When the judge rules that a cow is injured, unworkable or unidentifiable before the run begins the cow will be replaced or renumbered. All previous times on the same herd will remain the same.
  5. Roughing calls will be made at the judge’s discretion. The judge’s decisions are final.
Ranch Sorting – what I’ve learned

Ranch Sorting is a team event and there’s no rule about how you manage the sorting among yourselves. At the start, one rider (who we’ll call “the picket”) will normally wait in the gap between the two rings while the other (“the cutter”) enters the pen with the cattle. The judge then calls the first cow number to cut. The cutter takes that cow from the herd and brings it back into the other pen. The picket watches the gap between the pens, firstly to help keep stray cows out and then to keep the sorted cows in.

The Sort

The trickiest part of Ranch Sorting is getting the first few cows. At this stage, the herd is at its biggest and, once you have cut your cow, he’s going to be on his own in the other pen with a tendency to wander back if the picket doesn’t watch out.

As the sort progresses, the work gets easier. There’s less cows to get in the way of your target. Also, there’s more in the other pen for them to herd up and stay there. At this stage, the cutter and the picket can take it in turns and swap roles. This gets the sort moving quicker. It’s a risky strategy but if you get a momentum going, it happens so fast that the object herd pretty much stays where it is. Then, the sorted herd are happy to keep out of the way. A newly sorted cow arriving every few seconds or so tends to keep the gap between the pens a busy place and the sorted cows will stay away from it of their own accord.

The Tricky Bit

But the trick is getting to this happy state of affairs. Too often, in the early stages, the cut cow brings a mate along for company. Then, the picket must step smartly in and hold the mate out while the cutter pushes the object cow into the holding pen. So many go-rounds come to a sudden stop in a fumble at this stage. So, the cutter and the picket must read the situation and work together.

When Ranch Sorting goes wrong…

Most often, the early stages of a ranch sort go wrong because, in his haste to get on with it in 90 seconds, the cutter charges into the herd and bullies his target cow out of it. That spreads cows every which way. Then, the empty holding pen looks to the cows like a safe place to go. The picket is faced with more cows than his horse can handle. And,frustratingly, the buzzer goes to end the go-round only a few seconds into the action!

So, with the first few cows, it’s worth taking a bit of time. The cutter should spot his cow and quietly walk his horse directly through the herd going straight for it. He should aim for its back end or front depending on its shortest route out of the herd. If it’s facing into the herd with the short route behind it, go for its head and turn it. If it’s already facing out the way you want to go, just amble up to its back end and push it quietly along. It won’t need any fancy footwork on your horse’s part at this stage unless, of course, the cow wants to play. But, even then, you need to be patient and avoid doing anything that’s going to spread the herd out.

Once you have the cow out of the herd…

With the cow out of the herd, keep it on the rail and walk it round to the gap. Place your horse at right angles to the cut and side pass. That way, you’re in the best position to jump if the cow makes a break for it. To keep the cow moving, align your horse’s nose with a point about half way up the cow’s neck. If you move forward of that point, the cow will slow or stop and turn round. If you drop behind that point, the cow will speed up and/or run for it. Don’t rush it. Do that and you end up with the cow back in the herd. Chasing after it, you spread the herd everywhere.

The picket places himself away from the gap a little so the cut sees it’s got somewhere to go. But, not so far away that he can’t jump into the gap if the wrong cow heads his way. He can enter the sorting pen to separate unwanted cows from the cut. But only if it’s not going to let the wrong cow into the holding pen.

Get a rhythm going…

If you can get through the first few cows this way, Ranch Sorting starts to get easier. Because, then, you can get a rhythm going. There’s a 30 second call before the end of the go-round. By now, both riders may be taking it in turns to cut. It’s not a good idea to try cutting two cows at the same time. This is because its likely to take both riders too far away from the gap between the pens. Then, they can’t cover it if one or more of the sorted herd decides to join its mates. But one of you can be cutting while the other is taking a cow to the holding pen. You just both need eyes in the back of your head to make sure that a breakout isn’t brewing!


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