CHARLESTON, Maine — High above the arena, the announcer calls, “The flag is up. Team may ride.” Three gritty riders on horseback fly through a herd of steers, picking out three specific animals. For the next 60 seconds, the riders turn, shout, whoop and holler, using the horses’ skills and body mass to push the steers into a pen at the opposite side of the area.
“Holy cow!” shouts the announcer.
This is team penning — a skill as American as cattle drives, campfires, and humming “Home on the Range.”
The Wild West came to Charleston this weekend as cowboys, cowgirls and horses put their speed and agility to the test. Central Maine Team Penning was host to an international competition, with more than 60 riders from Quebec to Connecticut participating.
Team penning is fast-paced: Teams of three riders separate three yearling steers from their herd, moving them down an arena into a gated pen. Dirt flies, horses whirl and sprint, cows jog, and the riders have the times of their lives.
“Once you are bitten by the penning bug, you are lost,” CMTP president Lynn Boynton of Troy said. “People will travel across three or four states to participate in a penning event.”
High on a ridge at Maple Lane Farm in Charleston, owner Barry Higgins has built a new penning complex, complete with arena, beef holding pens, a concession stand and camping areas. While running a highly successful hay, grain, dairy and beef business, along with a state-certified slaughter facility, Higgins was looking to expand further.
“We needed more beef,” Higgins said. Because he sells hay to many of the riders involved in the competitions, Higgins began discussing creating a new home for the club. “Central Maine Penning had lost their home at Leeds, and it seemed a natural fit.”
Agritourism — which brings the general public to a farm for events such as haunted hayrides, corn mazes and other activities — is one way that farmers can diversify, Higgins said. “For us, this is part of value-added farming. Besides, I’ve become really addicted to this.”
Higgins had to commit to providing 100 head of beef cattle for the event which meshed nicely with his plan to increase his herd numbers. “At first I was worried that working the beef would thin them down,” he said Sunday. “Just the opposite has happened. They are muscling up beautifully.”
There are 11 Maine penning events this summer, including competitions coming up at the Skowhegan and Farmington state fairs.
Under overcast skies Sunday, the competition was fierce. Cows let into the area acted more like children headed out for recess or their beefy relatives — real rodeo bulls — as they kicked and bucked and twisted around.
The riders may have had fancy saddles, jingling spurs and 10-gallon hats, but in the end what really counted was horsemanship.
“It may be fun, but a lot of the skill is the horse,” said Trent Clukey of Skowhegan, riding Beavis, a 23-year-old quarter horse.
Beth Lambert of Norridgewock was sitting astride Crock, a 5-year-old quarter horse. “But you have to be able to ride them,” she added. ‘“It’s like a passion. I don’t even know how to explain why we love this.”
In less than a minute — 33.67 seconds in one team’s case — each event is over and the next team enters the area. All of those participating said penning is addictive.
Quarter horses — or cow horses as the riders call them — are the perfect breed for penning. “They are low, sturdy, strong horses that need to work and run,” said Scott Perssonatti of Litchfield, Conn., watching from outside the area.
Perssonatti was sidelined with a broken collarbone suffered on Saturday when his horse fell and rolled on top of him. Perssonatti went back into the arena Sunday afternoon, however, to earn points toward an award. Despite his pain, Perssonati was able to earn a second place and $123.
“We obviously don’t do this for the money,” Boynton said. “We get to ride fast. There is such great camaraderie unlike many other sporting events.”
But the bottom line for many of the riders was their relationship with the horse. When they were penning, it was sometimes hard to tell where the rider ended and the horse began — they were nearly one unit.
Taylor Thayer, 12, of Troy began penning at age 5, working with a pony. “It is so exciting,” she said. “I feel so in control. I love it when once you pick out a cow and the horse stays right on it.”
Chris Boynton, who has been penning for 10 years, said he points the tip of the horse’s nose toward the steer “and he knows that is the one. I sit back and hold on and let him do all the work.”