How Cattle Sorting and Penning Work

Cattle Penning
Sure, that herd looks docile enough, until you start trying to hustle them into a pen in about a minute’s time. David Silverman/Getty Images

Team cattle penning is considered more difficult than team sorting because it takes place at a faster speed and often in much larger arenas and pens. It also requires larger herds -- 30 cattle.

Each of the 30 cows has a number. Competitors have to coax three cows with the same number over a finish line. This task can be difficult as cattle can be willful, stubborn creatures, and the cowboys have to separate certain cattle from others in a crowded herd.

A team may consist of up to three cowboys, and teams are rewarded for the fastest time in penning a group of cows. Depending on the rules employed, competitors may have 60 to 75 seconds to pen the cattle.

Several other sports resemble cattle sorting and penning. In Australia, campdrafting is a popular, homegrown equestrian sport involving cattle. Essentially, the rider must corner a cow within a herd, make the cow turn several times and then guide the cow through a course. The contestant can earn up to 100 points, depending on his or her success in the various components of the event.

In cutting, a competitor on horseback tries to separate a calf from a group, herd it into the center of an arena and keep it there so that it can't get away and return to the herd. A competitor is given two-and-a-half minutes to cut up to three calves, and judges rate his or her performance on a scale from 60 to 80. Horses used for this sport are specially trained and are supposed to be able to anticipate the calf's movements to help keep it in the center of the ring. Breeders refer to this calf instinct in horses as "cow sense" [source: PCCHA].

For more information about sorting and penning, as well as other rodeo sports, take a look at the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Battista, Carolyn. "Wild, Wild West In Bethany (That Would Be West of Hartford)." New York Times. Oct. 5, 2003.
  • Canadian Team Cattle Penning Association. "2009 Rules."
  • "Cattle Sorting Clinics." Laughing Water Ranch.
  • Jones, Sue. "Campdrafting History."
  • KETC. "Team Sorting." St. Louis Public Television. Nov. 15, 2007.
  • Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association (PCCHA). "About the PCCHA." 2009.
  • Play Pen Area. "What Is Ranch Sorting?"
  • "Ranch Sorting National Championships." 2009.
  • RSNC. "Ranch Sorting National Championships 2009-2010 Rules." Sept. 30, 2009.
  • USTPA. "2009 USTPA Member Handbook." 2009.