• Team penning in Albion

Today, for Sports & Rec Week, I’m here to tell you about a competition you may not have heard of. Until a few days ago I hadn’t. It’s a sport, I suppose—it demands, at the very least, the athleticism to ride a horse.

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.