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Sort the Basics

Ranch sorting has become a huge sport that can be enjoyed by one person or the whole family. Competitors of any age can enjoy the sport—I know one 4-year-old rider, but I got my start a little later; I was more than 60 years old before I started ranch sorting and team penning.

Although I have ridden most of my life, I had never competed.  It has taken a lot of commitment and hours in the saddle to make me a real competitor. Many times I was discouraged because I was not getting better, but I never gave up. My partners believed in me and helped me through those hard times.  My husband, Jim, has been my biggest supporter but also my biggest critic.  He has spent many hours with me and my horse to make us what we are today. By mastering a few basics, you too can improve your competitive ride, whether you’re new to sorting or have been riding and competing for years.

Know your Crowd

Learning to read a cow and herd is vital to becoming a good sorter. If you watch the herd, you will know that one calf might stay in a certain area of the pen.  He might not move until you take your eye off him, but then he will charge the gate and beat you.  One of the hardest things for me is to keep a swivel head to watch both sides and behind me.

Second is Best

The second calf that is sorted is very important.  Many times if there is only one calf sorted, it does not like to be by itself and it will try to come back through the gate to get to the herd.  Cattle are herd animals, so they want to be together.  Watch the herd you will be sorting before it’s your turn.  Some herds will be soft and not scatter when the horse enters; this type of herd can probably be sorted quickly.  If you have a herd that is wild and spooky, you need to slow down and work the cattle at a slower speed.  You can still be quick even though you have to take more time getting the cattle to separate.  Try encouraging your calf to pop out of the herd so you can move it through the gate; in my opinion, this is much faster than putting the cow on the fence and taking it to the gate.

Key Communication

Respect and communication with your teammate is also extremely important. I like for my partner to talk to me the whole time we are sorting, telling me the next number, where it is and if they are having trouble stopping cows in the gate. They can also tell me to stop, slow down or come help. If you are in the short go, pay attention to the teams ahead of you so you know how many cows you need to earn a paycheck.  You must have respect for your partner, whether you ride together all the time or it is someone you don’t know.  Believe that they can do their job, and let them do it.

Horse Sense

In addition to your human teammate, take the time to foster a good relationship and adequate training with your equine partner. My horse, Boon Blazen Jaz, is my best asset.  He is a 2004 sorrel overo gelding by Blue Bayou Boon (QH) and out of Blazen Jazzy (QH); “Boon” was reserve champion in 2011 and 2013 in APHA’s Paint Alternative Competition team penning category. I am often asked if he’s for sale, and the answer is always a resounding “no.” Boon and I have a love for each other, and I think it shows when we are competing.  I try to ride him—and any other horse I ride—with a loose rein, working more off leg pressure with some rein. He is great at snatching a cow without disturbing the herd.

Taking the time to train your horse will pay off during a difficult run. The gate is the most difficult position.  Your horse has to keep facing the cattle coming toward him, push them back and allow the sorter to push the correct calf through the gate.  If you have access to cattle at home, place your horse in the gate and have someone push cattle on you and stop them or let the correct one through the gate. This is an exercise that we often use to practice. If your horse makes a mistake in the sorting pen, don’t punish him. Go back to the practice pen and correct the mistake. He will work better for you and have your respect.

Joy Ride

Remember, having fun is the most important thing.  If you get too competitive and lose the fun in the sport, you will not enjoy your horse and the sport nearly as much.  We have hundreds of friends around the world of sorting.  I am thankful every day for the many friends that we have and that I am still able to compete in this great sport.


About Zee Sykes
Zee Sykes lives in Royse City, Texas, where she and her husband, Jim, run Bar S Arena. After a lifetime of riding and loving horses, she delved into team penning and ranch sorting. The couple hosts clinics and competitions in addition to offering lessons and boarding.

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