Lay Up: Choosing the Best Rope Lay to Fit Your Needs
Understanding rope lays is an art form, and ropers’ lay preferences have as much to do with their roping style, strength and ability as it does with the climate in which they rope and the cattle they’re trying to capture. Here, the best in the business, plus some of the industry’s ropemakers, weigh in on how to order ropes to maximize your catch percentage.

Understanding rope lays is an art form, and ropers’ lay preferences have as much to do with their roping style, strength and ability as it does with the climate in which they rope and the cattle they’re trying to capture. Here, the best in the business, plus some of the industry’s ropemakers, weigh in on how to order ropes to maximize your catch percentage.


The lay of a rope is created by the amount of twist added to the strands in the rope-making process, determined by the number of rotations put on the rope and the amount of weight added to the machine. 

“Depending on the materials you use, you have to change your weight and length,” said Cactus Ropes’ Mike Piland. “It’s not just weight—the tighter you twist it, the harder the rope gets. You have weight and revolutions to deal with.”

The age of the wax put on the ropes can affect the feel of the rope, too.

“If we wax our rope in wax that’s old and used up, the rope will tend to have less body and will not be as firm,” explained Fast Back’s Coy Upchurch. “It will soften it up. How many times the wax has been heated and cooled makes a difference. When our wax gets to a certain point, we throw it away and put the new wax in. It will change the feel of the rope. But some people think ropes feel better at the end of the pot of wax. That’s just getting into personal preference. If a guy likes a rope with a lot more body, he’ll like it in the fresh wax. I don’t want a rope that’s super bouncy because it’s harder to use. I like them from the middle-to-the-end of the pot.”


Rope lay has as much to do with personal preference as it does with the size and speed of cattle, horn size and arena conditions. 

Cattle Size and Speed: Higher-numbered heelers are often roping faster, stronger cattle, so they need heavier heel ropes to handle the speed and power of their swing and to carry the tip through the feet with the steer’s wider hops. The heavier lays stay open better with stronger cattle. Ropers without as much upper-body strength can drop down to a softer heel-rope lay, particularly in lower-numbered ropings with weaker cattle, so long as the rope still has enough body to stay open in front of the feet.

Horn Size: Some headers like a softer head rope for smaller-horned cattle, as a softer head rope may be less likely to pop off. 

Arena Conditions: If the ground is extremely hard, a softer heel rope will bounce less when it hits the ground. If the ground is deep, a stiffer heel rope will stay open better. 


The main ingredient in all ropes is nylon, which has natural elasticity affected by the temperature. 

“When it’s hot, it stretches more, and when it’s cold, it doesn’t stretch at all,” explained Cactus Ropes’ guru Barry Berg. “So when the temperature goes up, you have to manage the stretch. The stretch is good with rebound. But if you run too many when it’s hot, your rope will get stretched past the point of return. And that happens faster with the core than it does with the non-core.”

For Top Hand Ropes’ Curt Matthews, humidity has as much to do with the feel of a rope as the temperature. 

“Where humidity is low in certain parts of the country, the ropes will get softer,” Matthews explained. “And where the humidity is high, they’ll get harder. Nylon is like a sponge. When there’s moisture in the air, it absorbs moisture and that tightens it up. When it’s dry, it will get softer.”



Ropes: S/MS Powerline Lite by Classic

Why? I used to use a medium soft head rope, but I’m getting old so I’ve been using a stiff soft now. I have to have a lot of body because I swing pretty hard and deliver pretty hard. A softer rope will get me swinging them too fast, and I’ll get ahead of my tip. A stiffer rope slows my swing down just a touch and opens it up better. That’s year round. I go to the same thing all the time. I have a lot of people ask me if I change on smaller horns, but I go the same no matter what. 

READ: Learning How to Win with Kaleb Driggers


Ropes: XS Future head rope; Cactus HM Future heel rope

Why? I use the XS head rope because its limber enough to swing but it’s got just a little stiffness to cover the horns. A more limber rope will collapse a bit in the delivery. I don’t change with bigger horns because the rope I use will open plenty. If I have real small horns, I will go to a real limber rope. It won’t want to spring back open and will let you get your slack without waving it off easier. Some of the best guys in the world use a stiffer head rope and use it on big horns or little horns, so obviously that’s not full proof. 

On the heel rope, a lot of people use more limber ropes than that to heel with, but I feel like a HM might be harder to swing and break over but it’s so much more forgiving on your delivery. It makes your rope want to stay open and keep the bottom strong on the ground and the top strand stays open. It’s easier to maintain power and keep your loop open. 

READ: How to Thrive in Competition with Matt Sherwood


Ropes: All Cactus heel ropes—HM or MH

Why? I like the two hardest lays—especially to compete with. I might practice with a rope that’s maybe one lay softer than that real hard one, but to compete I grab the hardest one. I’ve used them that way for years and years, and I just got used to them. The upper-level ropers rope with a harder lay because they’re roping at a way more up-tempo style and faster cattle. They’re making fast runs, so the faster and harder they swing their ropes, the more they need them to handle that speed and power. For a heeler, I rely on my loop being open. The bigger it can open up and go through the process of the delivery, the better chance of me catching the steer consistently. It’s that body and stiffness that I rely on to make the catch. These days, I use all of the Cactus heel ropes with cores in them. They’re all different, and they react differently with temperature. I like them all. So they’re all my favorite. I’m a rope junkie. The best feeling in the world is getting a box of new ropes to rope with. 

READ: The Process of How We Learn with Clay O’Brien Cooper


Ropes: Classic Zoom head rope; MS Radar, NXT4 or Powerline Lite 

Why? Everyone might laugh at my head rope selection because it’s a kid’s rope. It’s basically a 4-strand with a core. I had a head horse fall with me at the US Finals in 2020. It didn’t break my wrist, but I severely sprained it. I didn’t get to rope for a couple of weeks, and I was very sore. So when I got back to heading, my son Haze uses the Zoom, and they just come in one lay. It’s not that much smaller than the rest of the Classic Ropes. I was a Spyder XS man. They’re a touch heavier and a little more. I started using those Zooms, and they felt good and they went on the horns really good. That’s what I’ve kept using. I’m one of the biggest guys out there. They’re really soft, and I don’t mind a really soft head rope. I like a head rope to stay pretty straight without much kick. And you can get away with a straight rope that’s really soft. A little stiffer head rope that’s too straight, I’ll wave them off. These go on and stay on. I’ve used them so much I can reach with them and still feel pretty comfortable. I wouldn’t use them outside on a windy day in competition, but they’re great for when we rope inside. 

Heel ropes I’ve changed. I used to use the Radar in a medium. I was one of the only guys to use that rope, so after the fire, it was one of the last ropes they brought back. I went back to a Powerline Lite in a medium, but I’m still a Radar M since they went back to making them … or an NXT4. It’s a little smaller than the Radar. I’ll use a medium soft just because they’re a little lighter and easier to swing. They stay really open for me. I don’t swing as fast as a lot of people. I swing more in stride with my horse so I don’t have to swing super fast. The Radars stay pretty straight. 


Rope: Classic NV4 MS 

Why? I like a light rope—not a full-size. They feel smaller in my hand, as a four-strand, and it feels like I have control the whole time instead of swinging something big and heavy. I can place them where I want to. Here lately, I’ve tried to use a little smaller loop, and I’ve been working on just feeding once and staying there. I used to try to feed multiple times and it would mess me up going down the pen. I stay at that spot instead of putting more rope into it. I think I’m middle of the road on loop size. I’ve gotten too big and fed three times and it was huge. 


Rope: Cactus Future MH

Why? I stay with that lay—I use the same rope, the same lay, every single time. I don’t like to switch it up. There are too many variables that change that are out of our control anyway. I can keep my rope the same every single time, so I don’t like to change. I used to like them even a little stiffer—as stiff as they could make them—but they’re a little bit easier to swing in a medium hard. I had a habit of not getting enough speed on my swing, and when I backed off that stiffness allowed me to swing a little quicker. On fresher steers that are hitting real fast, I have to have enough speed on my swing to beat them to the ground. When I was using too stiff a rope, I wasn’t able to beat one to the ground. 


Rope: Classic NV4 HM

Why? My whole career, I basically used a Powerline Lite, which is a heavier rope. It’s a heavier, deader rope, and I used medium hard in those because they’re heavier. The heavier the rope, the stiffer I like to use. The lighter the rope, I’ve got to have it a little limber. If it’s too limber, it feels too round. It needs to be a little pliable so when you swing it fast it closes, and when you let off of it, it opens. If a heavy rope is too limber, it closes too much. It’s a weird thing in my mind and my feel. Forever I used Powerline Lites, and I used them stiff. Still to this day, Travis Graves and Paul Eaves, who are in their prime roping great, use what I used to use. Now I’ve gotten a little older, and I’m not rodeoing as much, I wanted something that I could use a little more wrist, a little smoother, instead of swinging so hard and throwing so hard. I can use a little more technique and smooth my swing out. What I really like about the NV4, even though it’s a lighter rope, when it hits the ground, it still reacts like a Powerline Lite. It’s not bouncy, and it doesn’t want to jump or scoot across the ground. When I place my rope on the ground, it hits and it stays there. That’s a big deal for me. I backed off to the hard medium because it’s a little limber and I can use some wrist and not swing as hard, but still I put quite a bit of force on my loop when I put it to the ground. But that rope still reacts the way I want it to, making that big open loop so I’ve got a chance to catch. 

READ: Your Circle Matters with Kory Koontz


Ropes: Lone Star RopesHelix MS, Thunderbird S; Fever S or XS

Why? I probably spend too much time thinking about this. At the rodeos, where we rope strong Mexican steers, I use the MS Helix. The older I get, the more weight I need to be able to reach. I don’t know what the difference in those two ropes is, but it feels better in the winter.  When I jackpot on little-horned natives, I use the Fever S or XS. On those smaller horns, I rope faster, and the Fever is really snappy and stays on the horns tighter. The bottom line for me is that the ropes need to be straight. I can’t have a rope with kick in it. If there’s kick, it doesn’t feel right to me. In the summer, the Thunderbird wants to kick more, so I go with the Helix. I need more body to reach with the medium soft. The Thunderbird or Fever S a coil back farther down the arena is a lot better for me at the jackpots. I used to use a medium soft no matter what. But do you know how much money I lost popping it off? I like to rodeo with a four-strand because, when you reach, it grips on the saddle horn better than the five-strand. Jackpotting, the five-strand feels the best. I love the feel of that rope. But if I hook it on one from two coils back and the horse ducks, I’m scared it will run on the saddle horn.

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