Ranch sorting, team penning event

A rider seperates the herd during Friday's team penning competition a previous Embarrass Region Fair. This years fair has been called off because of COVID-19 health restrictions.

EMBARRASS — The 80 year old Embarrass Region Fair was cancelled during World War II. Now, more than a half century later, it’s been scrapped due to the spread of the coronavirus in northeast Minnesota.

Still, Bonnie Meier, a fair board member, tries to keep in good spirits. "See you next year," she recently told the Mesabi Tribune. But for now, Meier, whose husband Jim is the board president, is looking forward to at least one fair tradition that will go on later this month.

The event is called “ranch sorting and team penning,” and it involves horses and cows, and riders on the horses. Team penning will be on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 28-29, and ranch sorting on Sunday, Aug. 30.

Since the rest of the fair activities have been cancelled, Meier said there will be more room for spectators to spread out in keeping with social distancing guidelines.

"There will be mask-wearing," Meier said. "This [the ranch sorting and team penning] is something that has been going on for years at the fair. Hopefully we will all be fine for next fair."

Ranch sorting is a western-style equestrian sport that evolved from the common ranch work of separating cattle into pens for branding, doctoring or transport. It's an event that pits a team of two riders on horseback against the clock. Teamwork is the key with both riders working in harmony to cut out the correct cattle and drive them to the pen while keeping the wrong numbered cattle back. It requires sorting the cattle from one pen to the other in the correct order.

Team penning is a fast-paced event that gives a team of two riders on horseback from 60 to 90 seconds to separate three specifically identified cattle from a herd of 30 and put them into a 16-foot-by-24-foot pen through a 10-foot opening at the opposite end of the arena.

The sport features 30 head of cattle with numbers affixed to their back, three each wearing a number from zero through 9 or with colored collars attached. Teamwork is the key with all three riders working in harmony to cut out the correct cattle and drive them to the pen while keeping the rest of the herd back.

The sport is thought to date back to 1942 when brothers Ray and Joe Yanez, along with Canadian cowboy Bill Schwindt were sorting steers from a herd of cattle on a Ventura County, California, ranch. During a lunch break the trio reportedly came upon the idea of organizing what were routine cowboy chores into a competitive sport, one in which cowboys could showcase their horsemanship.


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