The Dirty Business of Good Ground Conditions

Smart cowboys make the effort to get their ground good for their horses at home, too. Our horses are expensive, and they mean a lot to us. Ground conditions affect how they work and their longevity.

Kendra Santos photo

I was raised out West in Southern California. I then lived in Arizona before moving to Texas for a number of years, and now live in Nevada. There are various types of ground in different parts of the country, and it’s actually really important to your horses and your roping to make the most of whatever type of ground you’re roping in. Optimizing the ground conditions is important in your practice pen, and also for producers of ropings and rodeos to consider—because it matters. 

When I was a kid, we had a commercial roping arena where we put on jackpots on the weekends. We also went to other people’s ropings in the area. My stepdad (Gene O’Brien) would try to keep water on the arena, because it was clay and would pack down pretty hard. He’d rip it, disc it and harrow it to try and keep it right. Keeping the moisture content just right was a pretty big factor. 

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Good ground conditions might mean the most to your horses. The ground was solid clay where I built my first arena in Arizona. So again, it was important to keep just the right amount of moisture on it. I like a three- to four-inch cushion on that top surface to absorb the impact from every run. I like the ground worked such that horses can slide in it, because that’s easier on their joints and helps when you’re teaching young horses to stop correctly.

To me, the worst kind of ground is heavy and sticky. You see that when people water it too much to keep the dust down, but horses can’t slide in it and it’s hard for a heel horse to stop in sticky ground. If you rope for a living, there will be times you have to ask your horse to work in bad ground. But you definitely don’t need that in your arena at home. 

When I moved to Glen Rose and Morgan Mill, Texas, my arenas were really sandy. Those arenas took a lot of moisture, and I didn’t have to work them up. The downfall with sand is it gets too deep, so I had to float those arenas to keep them packed and safe. I basically flattened the ground back out after every couple pens of steers. 

Horses have to labor through ground that’s too deep, and it’s a hazard for tendon pulls and ligament strains. Ground that’s too hard is tough on horses’ joints. Regardless of what kind of ground you’re working with, it’s worth the effort to get it right, because your horses are your main tool. 

Generally speaking, the ground’s a lot sandier and naturally softer in Texas. The ground out West tends to be more rocky and clay, which means harder surfaces. This is all a factor even in where we warm our horses up before we compete on them. It’s so nice when ropings and rodeos have warmup areas where they till the ground and make it good for us. Our horses take so much wear and tear anyway, so that extra effort is sure appreciated.

Ground surfaces also impact your actual roping. At rodeos with major slacks and tons of runs, the arena surface can get compacted and hard, which can cause your rope to hit and bounce along the surface of the ground. In deep sand, your rope hits and sticks. 

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I’ve been to a rodeo held on an ice skating rink with some dirt on top of it. When your loop came in and hit the ground, it kicked the bottom strand up off the ground. A shot that would work on most other ground would not work there. That happened to me and several other guys in the first round, so the next night I totally changed the trajectory of my loop. The adjustment worked.

We roped indoors in Kansas City one year in muddy ground. It had been raining outside, so that’s all they had to haul into the building. That muddy ground reacted like deep sand. It was sticky, and grabbed your rope and stopped it. Ground with big dirt clods can also impact a perfectly thrown loop. 

What I’m saying here is that ground conditions always come into play when you rope. And some horses are naturally better than others at handling tricky ground. I’ve always watched runs in front of me to see how horses, cattle and ropes reacted to it.

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