The first person I noticed as I entered the Albion, Nebraska, fairgrounds at dusk was a lean teenage girl in jeans riding hers with serious elan. She galloped past me on a quarter horse, and soon I became aware that dozens of horses and riders were about—some teenagers but most of them older men, raw-boned or heavyset, all sitting comfortably in their saddles. I came upon a holding pen full of Black Angus steers, none yet a year old, docilely shuffling their hooves. There was no gamboling about the premises for these mute beasts—whose most powerful attribute is their placid incomprehension of their pending doom. To my right was the grandstand that stretched alongside the dirt oval of the fair's main event, the stock car races. And then there were the twinkling colored lights of the Ferris wheel. I'd seen higher and more fearsome looking Ferris wheels even in traveling carnivals. But this wasn't a carnival. It was the Boone County Fair, an annual celebration of a way of life.
I was headed for a much smaller grandstand, where family waited. We were gathering in Albion for the funeral of my mother-in-law, who died in the local nursing home at the age of 95. But this night was our own, and my sister-in-law Annie had proposed we spend it at the team penning competition, watching the very riders I'd just passed through. A minute-two is the time to beat, said Annie, by way of greeting. She was keeping score.
The basics of team penning are easy to grasp. Those calves I'd just passed were being run into the corral, or "horse arena," in groups of 30, each calf wearing on its back a single-digit number, zero through nine. They huddled at our end of the arena, and the task awaiting each team of three riders was to approach them, somehow cut out the three calves wearing a given number from all the others, and shoo them into a pen at the far end of the arena, maybe 250 feet away.
Each turn began the same way. The team that had just performed stayed in the arena to hold back the herd while the next team lined up behind it; then, as the new riders approached the herd, the announcer gave them a randomly chosen number and the old team galloped off while the new team went about its business. It had three minutes to pen its calves, and failure was much more likely than success. For a team not only had to cut out the three calves it had been assigned and pen them at the far end of the arena, it had to keep the other 27 calves contained at our end, for if even one of those calves crossed the midway point it meant instant disqualification. That's why just one rider, the "cutter," approached the herd while the other two hung back, on guard against stray calves wandering forward. Yet time and again this happened. An excited calf broke free of the herd and eluded the riders. Or a designated calf acquired a running buddy, and when it lit out for the far end of the arena its new best friend went with it. Or a calf buried itself in the middle of the herd, and to pry it free the riders had to disperse the herd, and when that happened calves went every which way and the containment collapsed. And sometimes a calf could not be pried free and eventually time expired.
Team penning spotlights two fundamental bovine attributes: the incurious calves cling to their own; yet they are easily spooked by the horses and the shouts of their riders. The idea is to roust them from the huddles they form along the back fence and get them running. This loosens the herd, and the cutter looks for moments when a calf he's after has enough space around it to be singled out and separated. The trick is to get that calf's attention, but not the attention of any other calf in the vicinity. I wondered if certain horses have a knack for that, as well as certain riders.
When a calf is spooked into running down the arena it won't stop until it gets to the far end; so the rider needs to chase it for only a few strides before wheeling his quarter horse and looking for the next calf. When the third calf is sent on its way all three riders make a quick feint toward the remaining herd to freeze it in place; then they gallop after their calves.
Once the calves were at the far end of the arena, it was usually a simple matter to drive them into the pen. But not always. Sometimes a calf would mulishly refuse to go along. Either it wouldn't enter the pen, or it would wander out before the others could be driven in after it. And every so often a calf would get it into its head to trot back the length of the arena and rejoin the herd.
All this was more interesting than I expected it to be. Soon I was asking myself what felt like the decisive question: How much of this is skill and how much is dumb luck? Obviously, luck matters in calf penning, as it does in any sport. Seconds into the turn taken by one fortunate team, two of the three calves they were after broke away from the herd and ran side by side to the far rail. It was the simplest thing in the world for the cutter to swing his horse in behind them and shoo them on their way, and the result was a new low time for the evening—53 seconds. Yet other riders found their calves buried so deeply in the herd I doubted anyone could have dislodged them.
But in team penning does luck matter too much? Were the riders who turned in the lowest times the ones with the smartest horses? Were they the ones with the keenest sense of how calves think? But did these calves think? Was there an ounce of calculation in their callow brains for shrewd riders to respond to?
Forty-eight teams competed, and 30 new calves were brought on after every ten teams, but did it matter whether your turn came when the calves were fresh and skittish or when they were bushed and had figured out the horses and riders posed no real threat? Was that something they had the wit to figure out? Is there enough individuality in a calf's skull that it matters at all which calves a rider draws? They say four-year-old fighting bulls have intelligence and character; did these hornless children, who because the drought has driven up the cost of feed corn would after just a few more months of life be loaded onto trucks and slaughtered? I couldn't put the thought out of my mind.
I didn't see enough calf penning to answer my own question. Yet some teams were obviously much abler than others. Some teams' riders constantly shouted information back and forth and rode as a unit, smoothly trading positions in the arena as the fluid situation demanded. Some teams appeared to be composed of friends or family competing together for the fun of it. One boy who couldn't have been any older than eight trotted out into the arena on a perfectly groomed Shetland pony. A phenom? I wondered. No, a complete novice who couldn't get his pony to face consistently in the right direction. But he didn't fall off the pony, and when the announcer asked us to give him a hand we were happy to.
Here's a video of team penning in which nothing goes wrong. But then, the three women on the team are identified as the "world-famous . . . founding members of the Team Penning Goddesses." No one so fancy competed in Albion.
Rural Nebraska is the world Annie and my wife, Betsy, grew up in. Their mother was the daughter of a state senator and then the wife of another, and she was the great-niece of a very early governor of Nebraska whose young second wife inspired Willa Cather's poignant novella A Lost Lady. Betsy wrote her master's thesis on Willa Cather. I remember my mother-in-law, who like Cather grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, explaining why her ancestor-in-law Lyra Wheeler Garber wasn't anything like Cather's title character. Yes, she was much younger than her husband, Silas Garber, and yes, she was a stranger to Nebraska and didn't know anybody, and yes, she was probably very lonely, said my mother-in-law, but that doesn't mean she was unhappy.
Unhappiness, on the plains, has always been that which must not be named.
But it might no longer be. Corn prices are high in Nebraska, and the irrigation pivots have made a huge difference, and Albion is a prosperous community of about 1,600 people that can claim a funeral home, a nine-hole golf course, and an ethanol plant on the edge of town. The nursing home is clean and well staffed.
And the teenagers get to climb on horses and gallop around the fairgrounds and show their stuff. We left the calf penning after all 48 teams had taken a turn but before the top ten got to go again. Though the championship round probably would have made it a lot clearer to us whether the top teams were actually that much better than the others or had simply gotten lucky the first time, it was already very late and we were beat. When we compared notes it turned out that those of us from Chicago were all thinking the same thing, which was that this world we'd immersed ourselves in that evening isn't the worst possible place to grow up as a child.