Renfrew – There are very few sporting activities where team members born in 2014 play alongside a teammate who was born in the 1950s, but that was exactly the scene this past weekend when close to 50 people from all parts of the Ottawa Valley, and beyond, rode their horses into a large steel pen and did their best to steer a group of stubborn cattle from one of the pen to the other.
The Ottawa Valley Team Penning Association (OVTPA) was back after a long time away due to the shutdown of their beloved pastime because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Among the men and women who set up their trailers at the Renfrew Fair Grounds were six-year old Allie Schlievert of Petawawa and 71-year old Willie O’Rourke of Fitzroy Harbour.
Although more than 60 years separates the two participants, their level of enthusiasm for team penning is something that comes naturally for both. Mr. O’Rourke, who is the current president of the OVTPA, said although they were placed on the sidelines because of COVID, he was confident his group would somehow salvage their season.
“Over a period of ten years or more, we have moved from South Mountain to Arnprior and the last two years we have called Renfrew home and this is just an ideal place for our members,” he said. “Although our members come from all over the Valley, we have some people from Sault Ste. Marie who heard about us and wanted to come out and join us,” he said.
“Because of COVID, a lot of clubs have either not played yet or may just skip altogether. But once we were told we could start up, there was nothing holding us back.”
Team penning is a western equestrian sport that evolved from the common ranch work of separating cattle into pens for branding, doctoring, or transport. However, clubs like the OVTPA take part in a fast-paced event that gives a team of two riders on horseback from 60 to 90 seconds (depending on the class or the sanctioning of the event) to separate three specifically identified cattle from a herd of 30, and put them into a 16' x 24' pen through a 10' opening, at the opposite end of the pen.
Usually, the sport features 30 head of cattle, with numbers affixed to their back, three each wearing a number from 0 through 9 or with colored collars attached. Timing starts once the line judge has dropped his flag as the lead rider's horse crosses the foul line. At that time, the announcer identifies the cattle to be separated by calling out a randomly drawn number or collar color. The riders must cut out the three head that have been nominated, take them to the opposite end of the arena, pen them and call for time.
The entire concept of team penning is built upon teamwork as three riders working in harmony to cut out the correct cattle and drive them to the pen while keeping the rest of the herd away. Even though Allie is still quite young, she has a solid grasp of the concept of teamwork as she galloped alongside her Uncle Jeff and her aunt when her name was called to the pen.
Barely less than half as tall as Slick, the substitute horse she rode over the weekend after her favorite horse, Tasma, suffered a slight injury and could not compete, she had help getting into the saddle, but once she got her balance, she pulled on the reigns and the youngest competitor, with her signature pink sunglasses, approached the cattle like a seasoned pro.
“I have been on a horse as long as I can remember and it is one of my most favorite things to do,” the spunky youngster said after she finished her last round inside the pen. “It makes me so happy to be up on a horse and riding alongside so many fun people and I just glad we could play this year because for a long time I was told we might not get to ride this summer.”
The competition usually begins in early May and runs until early October, but with COVID eliminating or delaying several sporting events, the OVTPA only started up two weeks ago. However, this past weekend had close to 50 people take part and Mr. O’Rourke said the event is all about fun and bringing people of all ages together.
“Look at me,” he said. “I am in my 70s and sometime over the weekend I will likely be part of Allie’s or some other youngsters group because one thing we do is we always mix up the three member teams and that way you get to know everyone and sometimes, even an old guy like me might learn something from a six-year old like Allie.”
There is no hiding the pride and satisfaction in his eyes as he sits atop his horse with other team members awaiting their names to be called out to try and pen as many cattle as they can.
“Team Penning is something that is not very well known and there are actually two other clubs in the Ottawa Valley, but we always make sure to schedule our events on different weekends as a courtesy to each other and to build up a sport we all love and take pride in,” he said. “When I sit and watch kids like Allie and others get in that pen on a great big horse and go riding towards a herd of cattle without any fear or hesitation, well, that is something you just can’t teach. They come by it naturally.”
On this particular day, Allie’s grandmother is given the task to wave a small Canadian flag to start the event and once the flag is down, she along with several family members can be heard shouting out support for the young rider.
“She started penning when she just turned five, but she has been up on a horse since she was three years old, and even falling off a horse didn’t stop her from wanting to get back up and try again,” her grandmother said.
As Allie directed her horse back and forth thru the pen trying to find the three cattle with the designated numbers on their back, she has no problem charging at a high speed to steer one of the larger animals towards the pen’s opening. For 60 seconds she did her best to steer all three of her picks into the pen, but when the buzzer went, she had managed to round up two of the three.
“I think we all did pretty good out there,” she said as she took Tasman for short walk. “We are supposed to start school next week and I am pretty excited, but I think this was more exciting and we had a great time.”
Once again Mr. O’Rourke can only smile when he hears the youngest competitor use words like “we” and “our team” used by her to describe her day.
“The OVTPA supports the view that team penning is a sport for young and old, male and female, families and individuals, and it all about good sportsmanship,” he said. “You look around at the members, even someone as young as Allie and that is what our sport is all about.”
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader