January 17, 2012
Believe it or not, the riders weaving full-tilt through a herd of cattle use extremely technical strategies to slice every second possible off the clock.
When Randy Haile was studying at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he was first and foremost a student of team penning. His research paid off. By his senior year in college, Haile had been the Professional Team Penning Association high-point champion four times in five years.
“I think this game is more mental than physical,” says the team penning guru. “Communication is the key to the whole thing.”
Communication extends beyond getting along with your human partners. You also have to communicate with you horse and an entire group of cattle.
“The best way to learn to read cattle is to work them on foot,” Randy says. “If you’ve got to run 500 yards to get back a mistake, you won’t make that mistake very often.” No matter how well you ride, or how good a horse you have, you are at a distinct disadvantage if you don’t know cattle.
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Randy’s other important strategy gives him a competitive edge.
“We video all our runs, and watch and watch and watch,” he says. “We tape the runs of other people who are winning, and try to figure out why they’re winning. There was a time when I’d watch team penning videos four or five nights a week, two or three hours at a time. It really helped me.”
In rodeo, you hear a lot about “the luck of the draw.” In team penning, it’s the same, not only in relationship to the livestock you draw, but also where you draw in the working order. A herd of team penning cattle consists of 30 animals. There will be three marked with each number – three zeroes, three ones, three twos, etc. Team penning is different from other cattle events because your stock is not announced until you cross the starting line.
If you are last in working order, it should be obvious what your number is going to be. You should know what your assigned cattle look like and how they behaved when previous penners approached the herd.
“The best place to draw depends on the cattle,” Randy says. “If you have cattle that want to take off, drawing later is better. If the cattle are weak to start or people are going at them real hard, your cattle will run down. Then if you draw up late, it can put you out of the whole thing. As far as early in the herd, I would rather be first than second. If you’re first, the herd has never been touched. If you’re second, the guys in front of you may have just scattered the herd. Then you spend more time trying to calm things down before you can go to work.”
Randy developed an excellent memory while trying to figure out new ways to win.
“We do a lot more studying the herd than most people,” he says. “You can pick out variations. Sometimes it’s an ear tag or a spot on their head. Say you’re looking for the whitest animal or the one with an unusual mark on his head. From the end of the arena, you can’t see his number, but you know who he is.”
With as much advance planning as Randy does, you might think he has a firmly set plan for getting his three cows out of the herd and into the pen. “The only thing that’s really decided before we go in the arena is who is going first,” he says. “If you watch this sport, you can see there is no sense in going in with a firm plan because too much can happen.”
Randy says the first team member used to get all three cattle, but that strategy costs too much time. Instead, he says the second team member can keep an eye on the herd and pick out the second animal. Then it’s faster for him to go in instead of explaining its position to the first person. With Randy’s team, the first person usually goes back in to get the third cow, as well.
“People do things differently,” Randy says. “A lot of teams send the first guy in to get the first one, then the second man gets one, then the third man gets the last one. With our team, we ride down the arena in single file – first man, second man, turnback man. If the first man sees a cow to the right, he turns right and the turnback man follows. The second man goes to the left.”
Randy says he’s more likely to ride and cut faster, risking disrupting the herd and his chosen cow, if he’s in a situation where there is only one go-round of competition. “You’ve got to go full tilt in a situation like that. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that where there are two rounds and a short, you can pull in the reins. You’ve got two shots.”
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Of course, getting your chosen three out of the herd is only half the battle. You still have to get them to the opposite end of the arena and into the pen.
When the penners bring the cattle to the end of the arena where the pen is, they change roles. Instead of the first, second and turnback man, Randy now refers to them as the swing man, the wing man and the hole man. The “hole man” stands in the gap between the arena wall and pen, the “wing man” positions himself to create a wing into the pen, and the swing man pushes the cattle through the funnel.
“If I’m in the hole, I want to draw the cattle to me, have them looking. If I’m standing close to the wall side, I only have to make one move to turn a cow around. A lot of people stand in the middle. Then, if a cow comes to one side and you shut him down, you’ve created an out on the other side. He comes back to your other side, and you’ve got to shut him down again.”
Randy has a long list of crafty tactics that may save as little as a fraction of a second or may save the whole run. No detail is too small.
“We were at a penning in Bakersfield where the difference between first and third was three-hundredths of a second after three go-rounds,” he says. “You have to find the little things that give you the advantage.”