Every week, riders can hone their cowboy skills far from the wide-open ranges of the West, in the Penobscot County town of Newburgh. This year, for the first time, Peter and Kim Smith of Whispering Pines Training Center in Newburgh have been hosting weekly practices and monthly meets in the equestrian event of team penning, which is gaining in popularity in Maine. Team penning, created by ranch cowboys in California in the mid-’50s, has teams of three horseback riders culling out three like-numbered cows from a herd of cattle at one end of an arena, then driving the three cows into a pen at the other end of the arena, all within a specified time frame. As practiced at Whispering Pines, the three cows are cut from a herd of 21, then they must be penned within 90 seconds. Scores are based on, first, the number of cows penned; second, the time elapsed.
The riders battle against the herd mentality of the cows.
“When one comes down, others will want to join it, or the other one will run back [to the herd],” explained Peter Smith.
The United States Team Penning Association requires the use of beef cattle in their sanctioned events. (A USTPA-sanctioned event will be held Sept. 9-10 in Union.) But in their nonsanctioned events, the Smiths used replacement heifers rented from three local dairy farmers. Replacement heifers are cows that are not yet old enough to breed or milk.
“[The farmers] still have to feed and house them, so if I can pay them a little, it helps,” said Smith. “They’re the same age and weight as the beef cattle that are used. They will run the same at the beginning, but dairy breeds tire quicker.”
The weekly practices at Whispering Pines, held from around 5 p.m. to dark Wednesdays, are casual affairs, as much social events as training opportunities, and attract 20 to 30 riders a week. The riders range in age from 9 (the Smiths’ daughter Colby) to the mid-70s, vary in ability, and come from all riding backgrounds.
Bob Lehnhard of Orono, just back from a summer of cowboying in Wyoming, was attending his first team-penning practice, and was impressed by the activity.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Lehnhard said. “It would be a good lifetime sport, another thing people choose to do. It’s nice to see the age span here.”
So how does team penning compare?
“This is pretty close to ranch work,” he said. “The big difference is the speed. On a ranch, you try to keep them calm and settled. Time isn’t a factor.”
The Smiths, their 17-year-old daughter Miranda, and husband and wife Stu and Katie Sherburne of Winterport make up the team sponsored by Whited Ford of Bangor. Dressed in royal-blue shirts, they compete at weekly events around the state and host monthly meets that draw up to 40 teams with as many as 200 riders (the last one of the season will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 1).
The egalitarian aspect of the sport is what appealed to Kim Smith, who is also a certified horse whisperer.
“It’s something where your horse may not be the prettiest, and you don’t have to be skinny or look good in your clothes,” she explained. “It’s not a snobby thing. This is something anyone can do. Everyone has a good time.”
For 12 years, Peter Smith’s role was to schlep his wife, daughter and their mounts around to horse events and to cheer them on. Then the family discovered team penning, and Peter became a rider.
“I wasn’t worried anymore about falling off [the horse],” Smith said. “I was worried about penning three cows. You can get started pretty easily. It’s not that hard to do.”
The Sherburnes got involved because team penning was something they could do together.
Stu Sherburne enjoys the teamwork and communication. “It’s like you need court sense in basketball, knowing where everyone else is while you’re working, because you can’t do it by yourself, ” he said.
So how does a round of team penning go? First, all the cows get settled into one, indecipherable herd. When they’re settled, a flag goes up, signaling that the three riders, garbed in Western shirts and pants and cowboy boots and hats, can begin. Then the number of the cows they must locate is announced.
The cutter goes in to break up the herd, in hopes of finding the right-numbered cows, while the other two riders hang around the center line, ready to drive the cows along to the far end.
Using cries of “ya-ya-ya” and “move it, move it,” they get the three cows isolated and on the pen side of the arena, no mean feat in itself. Then one rider, known as the hole rider, goes down the short side of the pen, while the middle, or wing, rider pushes the cattle around the end of the arena toward the pen and the right, or swing, rider seeks to block the cows from going back down the arena. The riders raise their hands to indicate when the cows are penned.
But there are several rules to contend with as well. Only one “trash” (wrong-numbered cow) can cross the center line, or the team is disqualified for that round. If a rider goes into the pen beyond his or her girth, the team is disqualified. If a rider falls off, the team is disqualified.
Also, the herd of 21 is switched with another herd of 21 after every five or six teams, to rest the cows and to make it impossible for the next team to figure out what their number will be.
“I don’t want to make it too easy for them,” Peter Smith said.
Then there’s the controversial matter of “unpennable” cattle, cows that just won’t be moved. A team will declare a cow unpennable, and put up $30. The rider’s representative, in this case Peter Smith, can agree, and give the team a re-ride at the end of that round. Or he can assemble a team, and try to pen the cow himself. If he can, the team loses its protest and $30. If he can’t, it gets a re-ride and a refund.
With prizes of hundreds of dollars to the winners, this rule can get overused.
“Yesterday, nobody called “unpennable,” Kim Smith said on the second day of the Aug. 26-27 event at Whispering Pines. “Today, it’s for the money, and everyone’s calling it. It can be abused, and we may look at changing the rule.”
At the two-day event, 29 teams were entered. The scores after Saturday’s three runs were used to divide the field up into a 15-team A Division and a 14-team B Division. On Sunday, every team got two runs, then the top 10 in each division moved on to the semifinals, and got two more runs. The scores then determined the top five in each division, who moved into the one-run finals and who were guaranteed to take home prizes. The total purses were $2,450 in A and $1,950 in B.
Winners Sunday were Jody Harrison, Matt Trudell and Heather McDonald in A, and Sally Cook, Bob Richards and Sarah Cummings in B. The Whited Ford team of Stu and Katie Sherburne and Peter Smith finished third in A, while the Whited team of the Sherburnes and Kim Smith placed fifth in A. Peter Smith teamed up with Laurie Watson and Patsy Boylan to come in second in B.
But the weekend is about more than competition. The event had a family atmosphere, and many of the riders stayed and camped at Whispering Pines for two days. They swapped stories and enjoyed the tasty barbecue served up by Wade Trudell of Smokin’ Willy’s Dixie-Style BBQ.
“People will take some time off and turn it into a vacation,” Peter Smith said.
But while the competition is fierce, the riders are most interested in serious fun.
“It’s about having a good time and bringing a lot of people out,” Kim Smith said.
For more information on team penning, call Whispering Pines at 234-2677.