NEW CASTLE, Colo. (AP) — Doing chores on a working ranch can be dangerous, and many a cowboy has a missing finger or toe, a mashed hand or a crooked elbow to prove it.
But the job of sorting cattle already collected in pens has always been open to young and old, novice and expert — basically anyone willing to climb on a horse and get it done.
In recent years, as part of a broad interest in keeping the cowboy culture relevant, sorting has become a competitive sport called “ranch sorting.”
It started as an offshoot of the established rodeo sport of competitive team penning, but ranch sorting enthusiasts are on the rise, and some say it will soon surpass team penning in popularity.
In Garfield County, where the cowboy lifestyle still thrives, the interest in ranch sorting was heralded recently by a hand-lettered sign along County Road 245 (Buford Road) north of New Castle, which advertised the Cow Town Arena and a day of ranch sorting practice and competition on Saturday, Dec. 17.
Aaron and Meg Ralston of Silt, hosts of the ranch sorting practice and competition that day, roped in a little Christmas cheer by sending out an emailed flier, declaring, “‘Tis The Season To Be Sortin’.” The effect was enhanced by a border of tiny Christmas trees around the edge of the flier.
Outside the arena, which was leased for the day, an array of parked horse trailers were scattered about, hitched to big pickup trucks. Seen from a nearby hillside, the collection resembled nothing so much as a handful of large jackstraws tossed onto the parking area.
Perhaps a couple dozen riders, dressed in boots, chaps, warm coats and hats, saddled skittish horses of various types before leading them into the arena.
Once inside, the visible breath of human and animal alike was proof of what everybody there realized immediately — it was a lot colder inside the arena than outside.
The participants began by riding or walking their mounts around on the soft soil, gradually warming them up before the work — or the fun — began.
Some readers may not be familiar with ranch sorting, a specific Western style, equestrian sport, said Ralston.
His company, Cow Horse Productions, recently began holding ranch sorting events in the New Castle area.
But the fact is, he said, “It’s been around for years,” although team penning has a better known and longer history.
Ranch sorting is regulated by the U.S. Team Penning Association in Fort Worth, Texas, which was founded in 1993. The Ranch Sorting National Competition, or RSNC, was formally established in 2007.
Both ranch sorting and team penning evolved from the work that cowboys and cowgirls do every day on the ranch — separating cattle into pens for branding or doctoring, rounding them up for transport by truck or train, or simply moving cattle from one pasture to another.
In ranch sorting, the work is performed in a figure-eight layout of pens about 100 feet long. The narrow spot at the middle is about 10 feet wide.
The competition starts with 11 cattle wearing large numbers on their shoulders in one of the pens. A team of two riders sorts the animals, beginning with the number called out by the announcer, and herd them into the other pen, one at a time and in numerical order, all within a certain time.
If two cows squeeze through at once, or one slips through out of order, or the allotted time elapses with one or more animals still in the starting pen, the team’s set is disqualified with the call, “No time!”
During the practice session, riders were mixed and matched into different teams over the course of several heats.
The heats started out as three-minute sets. Each team of two riders got up to three minutes to sort the cattle before the announcer would call out, “No time.”
Subsequent practice heats featured quicker sets — two and a half minutes, two minutes — as the teams got set for competitive sets in the late afternoon.
Meg Ralston said each rider paid a fee of $30 for the practice session, which bought entrants an unlimited number of sets.
For the competition, entrants paid $10 per set per person.
With a 50 percent payback as a purse, Meg said, she anticipated about a $90 purse for the day. That’s not a lot, she admitted, but it has been higher for previous events.
Ranch sorting is a sport of teamwork between horse and rider as well as between the two riders.
And as it is held in relatively small pens, horses and cattle move at a slower pace than in team penning.
In team penning, horses often are spurred to a gallop to keep pace with the cattle in much larger pens, and injuries to horses and riders occur more frequently.
According to Ralston, ranch sorting is gaining on team penning in terms of popularity, mainly because it is an equestrian sport that can be practiced by anyone old enough to sit a horse.
According to online reports, more than 4,000 teams competed at the 2011 RSNC Finals held in July in Ardmore, Okla. Ralston said as many as 10,000 teams are expected at the upcoming 2012 RSNC event at the same venue.
Ralston is gaining fame as an international reining superstar and a veritable guru among the local ranch sorting community. And ranch sorting is becoming a phenomenon, boosted by Ralston’s growing popularity as a television personality and event competitor.
He has won riding and reining medals both in the U.S. and Europe (see related story), and is the on-screen host of a television show, “The Ride,” on the RFD-TV network, which calls itself “Rural America’s Most Important Network.”
The show is produced by Cow Horse Productions, started by Ralston and Brad Zanin of Snowmass, and takes viewers to different locations each week.
Whether out on the range or in a show arena, the show gives Ralston a venue to highlight “a glimpse into the life of today’s modern working ranch cowboy,” as promoted on the Cow Horse Productions website.
Ralston is intent on putting together a competitive series of ranch sorting events to attract riders from this area and elsewhere in western Colorado.
“We just got this started,” said his wife, Meg. “We’re just building participation.”
She talked with a reporter as she multi-tasked at the Dec. 17 ranch sorting event, keeping track of the names of riders and horses while selling food from a table offering hot beverages, bowls of spicy beef chili, sandwiches and chips.
They hope to host practice sessions at the arena once a month, with competitive events perhaps every other month.
Every practice session features instructional classes taught by Aaron, imparting the finer points of working with a cow-horse.
The ultimate plan, Meg said, is to set up a couple of more formal competitive events a year that are sanctioned by the RSNC, perhaps serving as qualifying events for the finals.
“It’s just been a neighborhood get-together kind of thing,” Aaron said. “It’s really taken off because it’s really family friendly. Anybody can do it.”
– By John Colson, Glenwood Springs Post Independent
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