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High-stakes jackpot for ranch sorting competition to draw horses, riders from as far away as Texas

Bailie Henrickson chases down a calf during the calf sorting competition held Feb. 12 at the Smilin D Arena near Kandiyohi. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
Jessica and Dave Reigstad, owners of the Smilin D Arena just outside of Kandiyohi, will host a $10,000 jackpot cow sorting competition Thursday through Sunday. The event is the first of its kind held in Minnesota that is sanctioned by the newly formed National Sorting Cow Horse Association. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 2

A big-money jackpot offered in a ranch-style cow sorting competition -- said to be the fastest equine sport in the United States -- takes place next week at a small horse farm just outside of Kandiyohi.

Hosted by Dave and Jessica Reigstad at the Smilin D Arena, the jackpot show is the first event of its kind held in Minnesota that is sanctioned by the newly formed National Sorting Cow Horse Association that was launched nationwide last month.

With a $10,000 guaranteed pay-out, the event is expected to draw experienced riders and expensive horses from all around Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and from as far away as Texas.

"It has buzzed across Minnesota," Dave Reigstad said of the four-day competition that begins Thursday evening and ends Sunday afternoon.

"That's a big payout," Brandon Kruger of rural Lake Lillian said of the cash prizes being offered.

It's the biggest jackpot he's heard of for a cow sorting event like this, which is an activity that's growing quickly nationwide, but is especially flourishing in west central Minnesota.

"It's gotten to be such a big sport now," said Kruger, who was recently named the Midwest director of the National Sorting Cow Horse Association because of his interest in the sport and his 20-year business of buying and selling ranch-broke horses.

A couple of years ago there was just a handful of sorting competitions a year in Minnesota. Now there's at least one every weekend, said Kruger. He said there are at least six arenas within a 125-mile radius of Willmar that host regular sorting leagues or competitions.

How it works

A sorting jackpot mimics the real-life work of a ranch horse and a cowboy who sorts, or cuts, certain cattle from a herd for things like branding or veterinary care. On the ranch, a cowboy depends on the "cow smarts" of his horse to quickly hone in one animal and nose it out of the gate from the rest of the herd.

Although a jackpot event lacks the true drama of a rancher trying to do business efficiently, the competition functions on the same time-is-money theory.

In one minute and 30 seconds, the two-person, two-horse team has to move one 500-pound calf at a time from a herd of 10 head.

The more calves they move in those 90 seconds, the better the score.

But it has to be the right calf in the right order.

Each calf has a large tag around its neck with a number on it, explained the Reigstads.

The show director pulls numbers from a hat in a 1-10 sequence. The riders have to sort out the right calf that's first in the sequence, get it across the line, and go back for the next calf.

If the calf with a number 9 around his neck is supposed to be the third calf to be cut from the herd, but it sneaks past the horses and is the first to get across the line -- it's not a good day for the riders.

Some of the teams are so good they can complete the task in less than 35 seconds. "It gets exciting," said Jessica Reigstad.

The competition

Unlike some sorting events that toss all riders and horses of different calibers into one competition, the NSCHA sanctioned event in Kandiyohi will include three different classes: amateur, pro-am and open with prize money split between the first, second and third place winners from each class.

Dave Reigstad said he expects 200 teams to compete in the events next week. Some of the top-notch competitors will be riding horses that sell for $30,000. There will also be a lot of $400 horses in the amateur division.

A good sorting horse is one that's "able to read the cow a little bit," said Kruger. "You need a horse with a lot of 'natural cow'" that's able to move quickly but then stop and stand quietly.

After riding against competitors with similar abilities in their class, seven people will be selected at the end of each day to compete in the final show on Sunday.

The money that each final winner gets isn't just a nice reward; it will be part of that rider's annual winnings that could earn them a place in NSCHA's first world show scheduled for January 2012 in Branson, Mo.

The top 100 money earners in the country in 2011 will get to compete at the 2012 event, which will have winnings of $80,000.

Getting a piece of a $10,000 pie in Kandiyohi could be a good way for a competitor to start earning a place in the big show in Missouri. That's one reason why hosting the first NSCHA sanctioned event in Minnesota is a coup for the Smilin' D Arena.

Kruger said the association hopes to sanction 10 to 12 sorting jackpots in Minnesota this year.

Smilin D

The Reigstads will host the show in the 64- by 120-foot indoor riding arena they built in 2006. The calves used for the sorting will come from their own 50-head herd of Angus and Hereford heifers, bulls and steers.

Dave Reigstad, who also operates Riggs Bros. Concrete and is a self-taught auctioneer, will direct the show.

Jessica Reigstad, who helps organize the event, will also be one of the competitors in the jackpot. Their four young children are also part of the busy family business at the arena that includes horse auctions and hosting regular sorting leagues and jackpots on weekends. Earlier this month at one of their weekend jackpots, competitors had to donate a non-perishable food item for each ride in the event. With the Reigstads matching their donations, 475 pounds of food was donated to the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

The arena is also rented for winter-time riding by horse lovers who can't ride horse enough, as well as world-champion ranch competitors looking for some practice time.

Watching a sorting jackpot is a perfect way to learn about the sport, said Kruger.

There is no cost for spectators to attend the sorting jackpot at Smilin' D, located at 220 County Road 8 Southeast, just south of U.S. Highway 12 outside of Kandiyohi.

For more information about the sorting jackpot go to, or to learn more about the National Sorting Cow Horse Association visit

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750