Competitive ranch sorting derives from cattle work done on ranches—sorting cows from calves and steers from heifers. This work happens every spring and fall on ranches across the country, and it forms the basis of the sport, reports Dave Wolfe, president of the Ranch Sorting National Championships. 

Open to all ages, ranch sorting makes the cowboy way of life more accessible. Plus, it allows you to show off your cattle-reading ability. Wayne Lockwood

Founded in 2007, the RSNC is the official association for ranch sorting. It recently hit the 20,000-member milestone, with 5,000 of those members gained in 2013 alone. 

“This event is a way to bring that heritage to town and let people enjoy cow horse activity in a controlled environment,” Wolfe adds. “It’s a finesse game rather than a speed game, plus a really great way to show off your horse and your cattle-reading skills.” 


Ranch sorting takes place in two adjacent round pens connected by a 12- to 14-foot opening. Eleven head of cattle, numbered 0 through 9 with one blank cow, are in one of the pens; the two-rider team is in the other. When one of riders crosses the start line—the center line between the two round pens—the flag is dropped, the clock starts, and the team is given its number. 

The riders first sort the cow bearing their number and deliver it to the other pen. Then, in increasing consecutive order, they sort as many additional cows as possible within the one-minute time limit. For example, if their number is 8, they sort the cow bearing that number, then the cows numbered 9, 0, 1, 2, 3 and so on, in order. (Meanwhile, the unnumbered cow must remain in the original pen.)

The team with the most cows sorted in the fastest time wins. 


Breeds that excel in cow horse competition—small, compact, strong-backed, short-toplined, athletic horses—are the type of mount an RSNC open rider looks for, says Wolfe. But he adds that any broke and responsive horse can be successful, especially at the lower levels. 

[READ: Horse Responsiveness & Control]


Ranch sorting is open to all ages; classes range from youth to masters (50 and over). Wolfe stresses that no matter your age, a competitive nature is important.

“Anyone can learn quickly how to play and enjoy the game, but it’s an activity where competitive adrenaline tends to take over,” he explains. “So those who excel in a gung-ho atmosphere will naturally do the best in our sport.”

RSNC events typically offer five to seven classes for beginners, intermediates, and upper-level riders. Participants are rated on a nine-point system, based on their ability, with beginners at level 1, rookies at level 2, and novices at level 3. Levels 4, 5, and 6 are for more experienced amateur riders, and levels 7, 8, and 9 are open riders. Advancement is based based on winnings plus win-loss ratio (total winnings divided by total entry fees).


Wolfe recommends a few ways to get involved. First, visit the Web site ( and click “Calendar of Events.” Call the event producers, and ask if they know of a practice or clinic you could attend in your area. 

Second, visit the trainers’ page on the Web site. It lists all the trainers across the U.S. willing to coach and train new people.

Finally, check out the RSNC’s annual introductory and educational event, the Ranch Sorting Clinic and RSNC Sorting, held every March at Colorado State University. The clinic covers all the basics; the entire weekend, including the competition, is a good welcome for new riders.


“It’s not a judged event; it’s a timed event. So it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fancy horse or expensive equipment, or whether you look good as a rider,” Wolfe explains. “The bottom line is getting to that pay window and winning money.” 


Visit or call (970) 897-2901; ask your chosen breed association if it offers ranch-sorting classes.

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