Ranch Sorting Competition – Cowboy Adventures in Phoenix Arizona

December 2017 – On the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, we’ve found not only beautiful waterways and fall color in the National Forest, but fun western cowboy ranching traditions in the outer suburbs too. Phoenix is home to lots of “horse properties” and small ranches, and our friends took us to a cool ranch sorting competition last week. This fairly new kind of cowboy ranching event is also known as “cattle sorting” or “cow sorting.”

As we walked over to the cow pens, a cute goat stuck his nose through the fence and gave us a smile!

Goat watches a cowboy cattle sorting event-min

A goat welcomes us to the ranch sorting competition.

There were about twenty competitors, both cowboys and cowgirls, sitting astride their horses and waiting for the games to begin. In the competition they paired up in teams of two in round robin fashion so every rider had a chance to team up with the others.

Cowboy cattle sorting event in Phoenix Arizona ranch-min

Riders line up before the competition begins.

There were several pens of ten calves each, and as the competition progressed, each group of calves had a few chances to get sorted. Every calf had a big number on his back, from one to ten.

The calves all turned to look at me when I stuck my camera lens between the bars of the pen to get their portrait!

Calves waiting to be sorted by cowboys-min

Calves wait to be sorted.

Numbered calves waiting to be sorted-min

Each calf has a big number on its back so they’re easy to spot and isolate from the herd.

Ranch sorting mimics the process that cowboys use to separate a single calf or cow from the herd so they can inspect it or administer medication or isolate it for some other reason.

In the cattle sorting competition, a pair of cowboys / cowgirls enters the pen with the calves and waits to hear the number of the first calf they’re assigned to isolate. For the next sixty seconds they chase after the calves in numerical order, starting with the first number they were given and then isolating each successive calf and sending it into an adjoining pen.

Calf sorting event with cowgirl on horseback-min

Our young friend Autumn rides into the herd in search of her target calf.

Cowgirl sorting calves on horseback in Arizona ranch-min

Ranch sorting is a fun way for riders to hone their horsemanship skills.

Working together, one cowboy (or cowgirl) chases the target calf towards the gate to force it into the adjoining pen while the other cowboy or girl blocks the rest of the calves from running into the pen along with it.

Calf sorting on horse in Arizona-min

First the calf is isolated from the herd…

Cowgirl sorting cattle on a horse in Arizona-min

Then it is chased through the gate…

We really enjoyed watching the action. The riders skillfully maneuvered their horses among the calves to find the one they were after and then chased it into the pen next door.

Getting the horse and calves to do what you want looks easy from the sidelines but takes a lot of focus and knowledge. The rider’s body position in the saddle and the way they hold the reins and touch the horse with their feet is the language they use to tell the horse what to do. A wrong hand position or posture in the saddle can give the wrong command to the horse!

Concentrating while riding a horse-min

Autumn concentrates and the horse sticks his tongue out too!

The cowboys and cowgirls were scored based on how many calves they managed to get into the adjoining pen in the 60 second time period. If a calf sneaked into the pen out of numerical order, then the score for that round was 0!

Cattle sorting riding a horse in Phoenix Arizona ranch-min

The distance between the pens is short. Once the calf is isolated, it’s a quick sprint from one to the other.

Sorting cattle riding a horse in Phoenix Arizona-min

Going after number 9.

The biggest challenge in each round was the first calf because cows are herd animals and they don’t like to be alone. When the first calf found itself isolated from the herd and being chased towards the empty pen next door, it would try to return to the herd rather than go into the empty pen by itself.

However, once a calf or two was in the adjoining pen, the next calves were a lot less reluctant to go in there because they saw there was company waiting for them. On rare occasions two sequentially numbered calves would be running alongside each other and would go into the pen one right after the other. A two-for-one!

Calves running in cattle sorting cowboy event on Arizona Ranch-min

Sometimes the rider got lucky and a pair of cows with sequential numbers went through the gate together.

The cowboy life, horses, barns and hay aren’t in my blood the same way sea breezes and hiking trails in nature are, but we had a wonderful time watching this classic western event.

Cowboy resting with his horse at cattle sorting on Arizona ranch-min

Cowboy culture is rich and widely celebrated across the western states. We have loved learning about it in our travels.

Of course, not everyone at the ranch sorting competition was quite as enthralled as we were. One little cowgirl was so tuckered out by the action that she suddenly dropped into the dirt next to the referee (her mom) to relax with her feet up on the fence.

Tired cowgirl lies on the ground at cattle sorting in Arizona ranch-min

All tuckered out…

When we researched the sport of ranch sorting after the event was over, we learned that these cattle sorting competitions are fairly new to the ranching scene and the first Nationals was held in 2007. But they are becoming extremely popular.

Cowboy sorting calves on a ranch in Phoenix Arizona-min

A friend of ours suggested that knowing tackle angles from football would be helpful with anticipating which direction a calf will run.

Cowboy chasing calf in cattle sorting event on Phoenix Arizona ranch-min

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The folks that were at this particular ranch sorting competition were extremely enthusiastic, and they attend events all over Arizona.

Calf running away in cattle sorting event-min

Calf #3 says, “I’m outta here!” while #2 heads through the gate.

Cowboy sorting cattle on a ranch in Arizona-min

The riders told us #8 was particularly feisty!

For us there were lots of neat photo ops and we got a kick out of roaming among the spectators, spouses, parents and loyal dogs.

Cattle dog with horse and cowboy on Arizona ranch-min

Spectators were treated to a fun event.

Horse eye closeup-min

What do the animals think of all this? The horses seemed to love it and the calves got some good exercise and worked up an appetite for grazing later.

Unlike the big rodeo events like roping, ranch sorting is something newer riders can enjoy. For us watching, it was easy to understand what was going on and to root for the cowboys and cowgirls as they whooped and hollered and worked to make both their horses and the calves do what they wanted.

Cowgirl chases calf in Phoenix Arizona cattle sorting event-min

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Cattle sorting event with cowgirl chasing calves in Phoenix Arizona-min

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Cattle sorting event with cowgirl chasing calves-min

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If you are spending the winter in Arizona and want to experience a brief immersion in some of the western traditions of horses and cowboys, look for a ranch sorting competition! We’d never heard of this kind of event until last week, but we got a huge kick out of it!

Cowboy walks horse back to horse trailer-min

What a fun few hours spent in the midst of cowboy culture!

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More info about Ranch Sorting:

Cowgirl Magazine article explaining what Ranch Sorting is

Other blog posts about our adventures with cowboys:

Central Arizona RV travel article index and more from our trips in the whole state of Arizona.

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8 thoughts on “Ranch Sorting Competition – Cowboy Adventures in Phoenix Arizona

  1. My brother was very active in this sport in southern California. It went by another name though. It is called “Team Penning”, as in get the cattle into the pens. Fun to participate in and watch

    • Cool! Maybe “Team Penning” is a more correct term, or perhaps there is a subtle difference in the rules between the two since the Nationals refer to it as “Ranch Sorting.” Either way, it’s definitely a very fun event!

  2. …from Boston, “Ranch Sorting” looks exotic and exciting, requiring riding skills and practice – just to keep in the saddle !

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