Sort It Out

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sortingRanch sorting grows in popularity as a horse-showing event among American Quarter Horse owners.

Two riders, two horses, two pens, 11 head of cattle - and only 60 seconds to work. Sound like fun? Ranch sorting became an AQHA class in 2007, and it continues to grow in popularity. The class is offered in the open, amateur and youth divisions.

Ranch sorting begins with 11 head of cattle shuttled into two round pens connected by a narrow entrance. Ten of the cattle are wearing numbers 0 through 9, and one is unmarked.

The two riders enter the pen without cattle in it and are given a number by the announcer. From the second they enter the pen with cattle in it, the two riders have just 59 more seconds to work. The riders hear a number - 3, for example - and first push the cow with the No. 3 on its back into the empty pen. Then the No. 4 cow, then the No. 5 and so on until all the marked cattle are in one pen and the unmarked cattle in the other.

If an unmarked cow gets through the entrance or the No. 5 cow slips in ahead of the No. 4 cow, the team receives a "no-time." It's an athletic event, with accuracy and teamwork at a premium. The riders can take turns sorting the cattle and blocking access to the second pen. As a rider approaches the gate with his numbered animal, he calls out the number of the cow the other rider needs to find and sort.

Both pens are about 50 feet across, which makes finesse more important. Some competitors maintain that a smaller pen helps level the playing field, since it means that anyone with a good horse can sort, and you don't need a horse that is incredibly fast. A horse that has a large amount of cow sense is important, since there is a very small space to work; the horse has to be aware of what is going on with the cows at all times. The horse also must be forgiving and quick in short bursts, to be able to cover the 50-foot distance quickly. Ranch sorting takes skill and cow savvy, and relies heavily on a competitor's horsemanship skills.

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