Australian Life: A Sunday Team Penning



Team penning horse cowFor almost four weeks in June, Sam went back to the UK and I was left to “hold the fort” here in Ballarat. I thought I would feel lonely and sad but thankfully that was not the case. (or not all the time 🙂 ).

One Sunday I had been invited by the farmer’s wife Rebecca to go with them to see a show of team penning. I had no idea what that was, but when she said it involves horses, I knew I was in!

Let me step back one second and say how very grateful I am for our employer and his family. We’ve been incredibly lucky to find such a relaxed environment to work in and they are all so kind, honest and caring that I can only praise them. I’ve heard and read so many horrible stories about backpackers being exploited and treated badly by farmers, being underpaid or worst not paid at all that I feel for once my lucky star was shining above me.

And that invitation was another confirmation.

Rebecca, her daughter and her mum came to pick me up on Sunday late morning. We drove for about one hour, passing very isolated and silent areas. I have now understood this is absolutely normal here in Australia. Towns can be small or big but between them there is only land, land, cows, land, sheep and more land. I think we saw three cars the whole time.

We turn down a road direction Woubra and suddenly we were surrounded by fields covered with majestic wind turbines, which I later found out is the Woubra Wind Farm (4th largest in Australia). It’s quite impressive to see this forest of static giants in contrast with the small lambs roaming at their feet was incredible.

And so we arrived. A bunch of cars and horse trailers signalled that we were in the right place.

There was a small arena with black cattle on one side and a small pen on the opposite side. We took seats on benches and the fun began.

team penning, 3 cows, pen

              The little pen where 3 cows with the same colour have to be pushed

Team penning is an equestrian sport, quite recent in Australia. It evolved from the ranch routine work of separating cattle into pens for different reasons (branding, transport, doctoring etc). It all began in California, where two brothers and a friend decided, during a lunch break, to turn their cowboy routine chores into a competitive sport. That was in 1942; It arrived in Australia only years later.

The 30 heads of cattle (young ones, no bull or mature cows) are divided into groups of three, each group identified by a different patch of colour painted on the cows’ penning, horses

Each team has three riders (do not call them cowboys, which is American!, they are Stockmen here in Australia!) and the goal is, during a period of 2 minutes, to cut out of the herd the three cows with the colour assigned to the team by the judges, take them to the opposite end of the arena and pen them.

All three riders have to be near the pen and the three cows inside before the time ends to win the session.

Teamwork is definitely the key and it’s extremely difficult to cut out the correct cattle, guide them to the other side, while keeping the rest of the herd back. Most of the cows tend to run back to the group, where they obviously feel safer. If a cow during her run touches the arena’s rail, the session ends straight away. Which seemed fair to me, considering that the poor scared beasts hit the rail quite hard sometimes, in the desperate attempt to run away from the horse.

team penning, horses, cows



A quite funny thing that I noticed was that the judges turned on loud music during those couple of minutes. It seemed to me bit out of place hearing Britney Spears singing out of her lungs during the important bit! But I was told there are two possible explanations for that: one is that the music actually calms the cattle down (Stockmen used to sing to them even), and the other is that loud music…covers the riders inevitable swearing during the hard work! After all, it’s a family event and there are many kids watching… aren’t Australians amazing??

Many riders wore cowboy hats (one was even dressed as a Mexican, with poncho and everything!) and I was pleased to see that many were young girls and women. Not at all intimidated, these Amazons screamed loud, worked harder and their ability in riding definitely didn’t lag behind the men’s.

Team penning horses women

                                   Two out of three in this team are women!

Everyone stopped for lunch break and the same people watching the event were the ones cooking burgers and preparing simple sandwiches: all in all a very informal and easy going atmosphere.

I found out that many of these people were coming from far away, had camped the night before eating and drinking all together around a huge fire.

So competition yes, in the arena, but space for friendship and good times outside of it.

After all, we are in the land of mateship!

I was so glad to have the chance to attend this event and have a taste of local Australian life, even if I had to ask three times for a “burger” as the girl couldn’t understand me (so there went my attempt of blending in!). I’ll have to keep practising my burger request! 😉


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