Ranch Sorting 101

Test your horse and cow skills in this beginner- and family-friendly sport.
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Test your horse and cow skills in this beginner- and family-friendly sport.
Credit: Jim Davis

Credit: Jim Davis

Before the days of four wheelers, panels, and mechanized chutes, cattle outfits used to measure their mettle by their cowboys’ abilities to cut, sort, and separate steers.

Ranch sorting, a relative newcomer to cowboy competitions, celebrates traditional skills by requiring modern day riders to demonstrate their herd control skills and horsemanship as they divide and separate cattle.

At the start of the event, 11 cows (10 of which are numbered 0–9, and one of which is left unmarked) wait in one of two adjoining 50- to 60-foot round pens. Two riders cross the 12-foot opening between the two pens, starting the time and signaling for the judge to read out the number of the first cow to be cut. 

Each cow must enter the second pen in numerical order, followed last by the unmarked cow. If any cow or part of a cow crosses the line out of turn, the team is immediately disqualified. It takes strategy, teamwork, and stock knowledge. 

Ranch sorting, although popular at local levels, did not become an organized discipline until 2007, when its rules were formalized by the Ranch Sorting National Championship (RSNC). 

“The sport of ranch sorting is taking off like team roping took off 20 years ago,” says RSNC President Dave Wolfe. “We have members in every state, and have produced events in 43 states. This year we had 31 states represented at our National Finals.”

While Wolfe jokes that all you really need are “a broke horse and a couple friends” to enjoy sorting, he recommends introducing novice horses to cattle in a low-stakes environment before heading off to competition. 

Start by riding inexperienced mounts around the edge of a group of cows, letting them learn how cows move away from horses. This gives the horse confidence and gets them interested in the game. Then it’s up to the rider to tell their horse which cow to move and where. 

“A rider has to know and anticipate how a cow will instinctively move—or, as we say, how to ‘read the cow,’” explains Wolfe. “It’s a skill that comes straight out of the oldest traditions of the West.” 

Ranch sorting appeals to all levels of horse and rider combinations by being affordable (the first year of membership is free and entry fees at regular-season sanctioned events start at just $15) and by being both beginner-friendly and competitive at professional levels (the 9-point rating system and handicapping system level the playing field so that everyone who can swing a leg over a horse has the opportunity to win, and seasoned competitors are challenged in the Masters classes). 

“That’s what’s most exciting about our sport,” explains Wolfe, who’s judged AQHA and APHA events for 22 years. “From the #1 Beginner level, which we say ‘any grandmamma on a trail horse’ can do, on up to #9 Professional, where you’ll see top notch horses and riders, there’s a place for everyone.

“It’s all about camaraderie and having a good time on horses,” stresses Wolfe. “This is a fun game everybody and anybody can play.” 

The RSNC boasts 20,000 members, free membership, and tons of family-friendly events around the country. Visit their website to learn more and find events and trainers near you. 970-897-2901, rsnc.us