ranch sorting

The team event of sorting cattle has become a popular western competition, giving horsewomen of every age and background the experience of putting the cow back in cowgirl!


Ranch sorting is one of the western horse world’s fastest moving and fastest growing new events.

To give some perspective to its rapid growth, the first Ranch Sorting National Championships Show took place in 2007 with just over 900 teams. Last year, a whopping six-thousand teams from across North America competed at the show in Fort Worth. Likewise, at the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show, ranch sorting has quickly risen to become the most popular event in both entries and in overall participation by AQHA members.

What is the sport and why is it becoming so popular? 

Born of actual ranch work, ranch sorting is fast-paced and challenging, but also controlled and relatively safe. The action takes place in two 60’ diameter circular pens placed side-by-side to form a figure eight. There is a 12’ foot to 16’ foot opening between the two pens which allows cows to be moved from one arena to the other.

A two-competitor team and their horses enter one of the joined arenas. In the other arena or “pen” are 10 head of cattle numbered from 0 to 9, plus one “blank” cow which is not assigned a number. The riders wait behind the opening between the two pens. When the flag official is ready, the team receives a signal to begin its run. Time starts when one of the horse’s noses crosses the imaginary plane that separates the pens.

As the run commences, the official calls out a number. The team must seek out the cow with the corresponding number and separate it from the herd then drive it to the other pen. Usually, one team member known as the “sorter” handles the “cut,” while her teammate called the “gate rider” is responsible for holding the cows in the back pen.

A sorting run can play out one of two ways. If all the cattle are sorted within an allocated time (usually 60 to 90 seconds), time stops when the final cow is moved to the adjacent pen. In this scenario, the fastest time wins. If none of the teams manage to sort all the cows in the allotted time, the team with the most cows sorted wins.

According to Charlie Hemphill, director of shows and new events for the American Quarter Horse Association, part of ranch sorting’s popularity has to do with it being a timed event. Although there are judges, their job is simply to keep track of the time and cattle sorted, along with a relatively small set of rules.

“It’s also a great spectator sport for those people not actually competing,” said Hemphill.

Dave Wolfe is president of the National Ranch Sorting Championships, which sanctions a national finals competition plus regional, state and local-level events. He explained how the contest grew out of actual ranch tasks.

“It’s common on ranches to have to sort the steers from the heifers and the cows from the calfs. There are many cowboys who are good at it, so we made a game out of it and brought it to town,” he said.

Certainly, part of the sport’s appeal is the chance to play at being a cowboy (or cowgirl) and partaking of the western ranching heritage. But there are a number of other reasons Wolfe cites in trying to explain why the sport has grown like a prairie grass fire.

First, he says, there’s the ease of entry. At the novice level, at least, you don’t need a high-octane pony with proven cow horse breeding and cow-savvy skills. And although it’s fast paced and exciting, it doesn’t happen at breakneck speeds. In fact, the better teams are known for their control and finesse more so than frantic activity, which can unsettle the cattle. And luck can play as big a part as skill when putting together a winning run.

“Popular events like team roping can require years of practice before you ever step into the competition arena, much less win. That limits the field of people willing to compete,” says Wolfe. No such barriers exist in ranch sorting.

Making things even easier for newbies is a handicapping system that allows novice riders and horses to keep on an equal playing field with other beginners or pair up with more experienced riders to compete in higher level classes. Though a bit difficult to explain, the handicapping system takes into account the number of events a person competes in, the percentage of events that they place in, and the amount of money they have won. Those who enjoy greater success move up the ranks; those who meet with little success may move down in rank, while those in the middle stay put. (In American Quarter Horse Association sanctioned competition, riders compete in youth, amateur and open divisions).

“Our ranking system allows people at all different levels to succeed in the sport. And it has worked tremendously well,” concludes Wolfe.

Indeed, the accessibility of the sport combined with a system that enables riders to be competitive at any level has helped the Ranch Sorting National Championship grow to more than 22,000 members. And, according to Wolfe, the sport is now spilling over into other countries like Canada and Brazil, where affiliate chapters have been formed.

Leslie Ellsworth of Twin Falls, Idaho, is one of the sport’s enthusiastic supporters. Elderly enough to be eligible for an AARP membership, the ranch-raised horsewoman began competing in the related sport of team penning back in the mid-1990s. As sorting gained popularity, she and her siblings began competing in that too. She also enlisted friends and fellow riders in the competitions and formed new friendships as a result.

hat I like about ranch sorting is [that] inexperienced riders can get started in this sport.  You don’t have to ride as hard and fast as with team penning and it’s a little easier on the cattle, too,” she said.

llsworth, who grew up in the tiny town of Leadore, Idaho, population 78, was something of a natural.  She says a lifetime in the saddle plus the cattle-handling skills she learned on her family’s ranch translated readily into success in competition.

“In order to do well, you have to learn to read cattle, you have to get that horse to [cut] that cow in the right spot. I still go out and help my brother sort our cows and calves on the ranch, and I know that ranching background helps. But it’s not so hard you can’t have a beginner learn to do it,” she said.

But with prize money at the National Ranch Sorting Championships approaching the half million dollar mark and competitor numbers rising in the Paint, Quarter horse and Arabian breed organizations, the level of competition is getting fiercer, especially among the higher-ranked amateur and open competitors.

Among the masters of ranch sorting are couple Louie and Niki Saggione, owners of Louie Saggione Performance Horses of New Boston, Texas.  At last year’s AQHA World Championship Show, Louie claimed his sixth AQHA World Open Championship in ranch sorting while teamed up with Grady Underwood, Jacksonville, Texas.  Wife Niki won the amateur ranch sorting title riding with her longtime pal and sometime riding partner Sonya Nannette of Bastrop, Texas.

A tough competitor in every sense of the word, Nannette competed with a broken ankle she had suffered at another national-level event just over a month earlier.

“I broke my ankle about five weeks ago at the [United States Team Penning Assoc.) National Finals and had to sit out that whole week and watch everybody ride,” she said.  “That was pretty tough. This has made it a whole lot better.  It doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as it did.”

Because team work can play such a big role in a successful run, Niki cites the fact that she and Sonya had practiced and competed together as a key element of their success this past year.

“It helps that we ride together a lot and we kinda know what the other is gonna do. We love riding together anytime the girls get to partner up. We both ride in the Open division with our husbands and other team members, and they are all men.  So anytime we get to ride together, we just love it,” said Niki.

Yes, you read correctly. Men and women can and do compete together at the highest level of the sport. Not only does the system provide a level playing field for riders at the various levels, it is by its nature fair to the fairer sex.

Rancher Leslie Ellsworth notes that she used to compete with the men in team roping, but never felt competitive against the guys.  She says not having the arm strength that the men do made team roping a tilted field.  But that’s not the case when she is sorting; she and her frequent teammate Dorothy Bradfield can often stick it to the men.

“I see women that are darn sure tough,” observed Ellsworth. “A lot of the women are aggressive riders.  And if they are mentally prepared and have good horses, on any given day, they are gonna take a check.”

For more information about ranch sorting, visit the Ranch Sorting National Championship website, www.RSNC.us, and the United States Team Penning Association website, www.ustpa.com.

You can also learn more about the event through breed organizations, including the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Paint Horse Association, and the Arabian Horse Association.