Team Penning

Team Penning
Team Penning – worldwide appeal

Team Penning is another hugely popular event – worldwide. Inevitably it has its own association in America where the United States Team Penning Association provides a specialist organisation. Together with Canada, there are reckoned to be about 93,000 team penners in North America. It’s also very popular in Europe. There, the French Working Horse Association organises World Championships in the sport. you don’t have to look far to understand its popularity. The competition is fast moving and the consequences of poor teamwork or inept horsemanship are an unseemly tangle of horses and cattle. A moment’s mistake gets cows everywhere with horses hot on their heels.

The fundamental nature of this class is teamwork and there’s something to do for everyone. Indeed, it can get a bit out of order if everyone in the team wants to do the cutting. We watched amused one time when a “dream team” assembled itself consisting of three of the best cutting horses in England. The riders hadn’t actually worked together as a team before and onlookers held their breath in anticipation of a master class in the art of team penning.  What they got was a hectic display of cows and horses running in all directions as the team piled as one into the herd and spread it all over the arena in seconds flat!

The wonderful thing about cows

Because the wonderful thing about cows is that they are just as much up for a bit of sport as the horse and rider. The rules specify that the herd should not be of mature cows. That’s because old ‘uns are usually more interested in standing and chewing their cud. But, obviously, they should’t be too young either. Yearlings or thereabouts are just about right. They are young enough to enjoy a bit of mischief but not so young as to be at risk.

The size of the herd needs to be big enough to provide enough cows to generate a strong herd instinct. But, for team penning, the herd mustn’t be so big as to be unmanageable within the confines of the arena. The cows are numbered prominently enough to be able to see their numbers from the back of a horse. This also helps the judge and spectators to know that the right cows are being worked!

Stuart Powell & Storm


The Team Penning rule

Worldwide, there are dozens of team penning associations and each has its own variations on a general theme as regards rules. the following is therefore a general indication of the average.

The objective of team penning is that within a 2 ½ minute time limit, a team of three competitors must cut three designated cows from the herd and pen them. Regardless of the size of the arena, the dimensions in the diagram (below) must be followed. Markers at either side of the arena indicate the start line.

As each team must work with three head of cattle and leave a substantial herd, its best that this class is only held where a good size herd of cattle is available. The cows are individually numbered. Each team is told on the start line the three numbers they have drawn. The judge ensures that each team has no three cows the same as another team.

Time limit

The contest is timed with a maximum time limit of  2 ½ minutes. The judge acts as starter and the team is on the pen side of the start line. The time starts when the nose of the first horse crosses the line. The team then cuts its three allocated cows. The cut cows are driven to the pen and penned. 

The clock stops when all three cows are in the pen and the nose of the first horse enters the opening of the pen. At that stage, that rider can call time. However, the clock continues running until any fourth unwanted cow is on the cattle side of the start line. If it’s still there when the clock stops, the team will be disqualified. 

The judge gives a thirty second warning before the 2 ½  minute time limit. A team can call for time with only one or two designated cattle penned. However all un-penned cattle must be on the cattle side of the start line, or the clock will continue as previously described. Teams penning three cattle place higher than two, and two place higher than one, regardless of time.

All three competitors must be on the pen side of the start line when time is called. Failure to be in this position causes disqualification. A team calling time with any wrong cattle in the pen is disqualified.

The herd must be settled for the same length of time for each team.

Team Penning Setup
Cutting Horse & Working Cow Horse rolled into one

This is where all that hard work producing a cutting horse or working cow horse comes into its own. You can be a member of a penning team if your horse isn’t fully finished for herd work. But he needs at least to be at ease with cows and able to shift smartly when required.

This is a timed event and it’s not judged for finesse in the same way as a cutting contest. In essence, it’s make haste gently. If there’s one too many cows the wrong side of the start line (usually marked by cones at either side of the arena) when time is called – or if at any time more than four cows get on the pen side of the start line – it’s a disqualification.  There’s a real need therefore to keep the herd bunched quietly in the area it was settled before the start.

There’s no stipulation how to do the penning and tactics vary. The “dream team” mentioned at the start of this page counted on the fact that they were all on good horses. Good horses that would be quiet in the herd and could get three cows out of it all at once without disturbing the rest. A forlorn hope really…

Nominate the team’s best cutter

It’s  best to nominate the team’s best cutting horse to do the herd work and get out the 3 cows  one at a time. The other two team members hang back and keep the herd from spreading out. One of them will collect the cut cow and drive it up the arena to the vicinity of the pen.

That rider can then come back to help with the cutting or stay with the first cow to make sure it does not head back to the herd. If that’s the choice, this rider needs to stand far enough back from the cow for it to settle. Too close and it’s sure to run for it. This rider keeps one eye on what’s going on back at the herd to avoid getting in the way when the next cow arrives. He needs to be ready to head back right smartly if things are getting out of shape at the herd. Remember, if there’s  cows the wrong side of the start line when the whistle blows, it’s game over.

Safety in numbers

Once there’s two cows up around the pen, they’re more likely to stay put in each other’s company. But, nothing’s given with cattle and you leaving them unattended is risky. And one rider alone is not going to stop them if they take it into their heads to wander.

So it’s better at this stage for the second rider to help hold the two cows there and leave the cutter to bring the last of the three up to join them. Inevitably, there’s a risk that the herd will start to wander at this stage but it will take three riders to pen the three cows.

It’s a bit like spinning plates: you have to be ready to be everywhere at once. But you also need to get three cows into the general vicinity of the pen. Most of the time,  the main herd stays where it’s left at the other end of the arena. You’re working against the clock anyway and they don’t have a great deal of time to go walkabout. So the the whole team concentrates on penning the three cut cows once.

The Tricky Bit

This is the tricky bit: persuading the three cows to walk quietly into the pen. They’re just as likely to make a run for it back to their mates at the other end of the arena. And although you’re in a hurry, you need to keep calm and avoid exciting the cows.

One team member positions his horse in the gap between the pen and the arena wall. Positioning here is critical. Standing too close to the mouth of the pen will discourage the cows from walking into it. Too far back in the gap and you might get one or more of the cows wanting to try their luck with a dash for freedom that way. It’ll become clear as the cows are moved towards the mouth of the pen. If they’re showing reluctance then the gap filler must move back in the gap to encourage them in.

Meanwhile, back with the trio “awaiting” penning, the other two riders have the job of pushing them into the pen. It’s not easy for two riders to manage three lively young cows. The best approach is first to get the cows together in the corner of the arena nearest the pen. One of the riders then backs off to position his horse in the gap between the “wing” of the pen and the end of the arena. The other team member then brings the cows out of the corner towards the pen.

Be prepared…

It’s at this stage of the proceedings that everyone needs to be prepared. Keep an open mind about what’s going on.  There’s three cows  facing the choice of heading back down the arena to their mates or walking quietly into the waiting pen. The deciding factor is that they won’t want to go head-to-head with three horses.

Providing the riders stay flexible, anticipate any rambunctiousness and place their horses strategically, the cows will walk quietly into the pen. As they do, the team comes around behind them to the mouth of the pen. It’s as well, even now, not to get too close to the cows: they can easily panic and make a bolt for it right under your horse’s nose.

Once they’re all in the pen, one of the team (but usually all!) will stick a hand in the air to let the judge and an admiring audience know that it’s job done. 

Watch the clock

You’ve got 2½ minutes to get all this done. So often with cattle work, it can get to seem like 2½ hours when there’s cattle and horses running everywhere. Your competitors and  the audience hugely enjoying the havoc. But you need to be aware of the time element.

Penning three cows is the object.  But two or only one will still provide a time if your team calls it to the judge (hence the requirement for a hand in the air at the pen when you want the watch stopped). If the herd has been particularly “playful”, you will get days when, at  your turn, the teams before you may only have managed to pen one or two cows before the 2½ minutes is up.

You then have to chose whether to keep trying for a full house (and risk timing out) or to settle for less. The judge will call when two minutes are gone (if you’re not finished by then!) and your team then has to make a quick decision about whether to tidy up any stray cows and pen what’s available or to keep trying for three. Ah! Decisions…

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