Back when four strands exploded into the market, the trend was all about adding material. Today, it's about taking it away. Ropes are shrinking faster than go-round times, and for good reason-smaller means more tip speed, a quicker delivery and a faster time.
It all started when Cactus came out with the Magnet head rope, a revolutionary little orange three-strand that surprised with its quickness. Then came the even-smaller Mini-Mag and the skinny little four-strand Whistler as a host of other brands followed suit.
World champion header Matt Sherwood remembers the initial response when he was out there using the Whistler prototype.
"Guys would swing it and say, 'No way, that's way too light,'" Sherwood said.
But, once headers get familiar with a small rope, they also get familiar with the winner's circle. Defending Wrangler NFR average champion Jake Barnes discovered the lightweight red Heat by Classic in Las Vegas and switched to it the last seven rounds of the Finals. Veteran header Steve Purcella won the 2007 Bob Feist Invitational with Fast Back's barely-there three-strand M-33.
"The first time I picked it up, I thought it was a kid's rope," recalled "Cheese." "Now, when I pick up one of the old heavier ropes, they feel like old well ropes."
At first, Fast Back rope-maker Al Benson hated the extra-long M-33, which was made as a light practice rope for the then-injured Speed Williams, but now says it's his favorite head rope.
"A lot of those small ropes would get dead pretty soon," he said. "So we basically took a little material out of the Mach III, but twisted it tighter to get more body."
What exactly is "body?" Picture a tube in which you stuff as much nylon as you can possibly pack in there, and you get an idea. This factor, not lay alone, is what gives a loop its shape.
"Speedy uses an extra-extra-soft, but it looks hard because it stays so open," said Benson. "It's easy to feel the tip, but when you throw, it opens back up and makes a big old gate for the horns. And it's wound tight enough, it's like you almost don't even have to pull your slack."
Nothing feels as good to a header as hearing that knot crack around the back of a steer's head. But the little ropes aren't just easy to get tight. Purcella says they grab his horn better, and Sherwood can get them up quicker and easier.
"Plus, I can reach with it without feeling like I have to put my whole arm into it," Sherwood said. "I'm not strong."
Obviously, the lighter the rope, the easier it is on someone with shoulder problems or an older roper who doesn't want an aching arm at the end of the day.
In the old days, "body" meant a monster twist and the stiffness of a 2x4. Now, it means a lot of tip feel, which has also been the goal of extra strands, weighted tips and center cores.
Until leg wraps are used on steers, you'll never see skinny twines at the heel end, but lighter full-bodied ropes for heelers now offer more tip speed for quick-hopping steers and more grab at the horn. Thirteen-time NFR heeler Britt Bockius says the unique fibers in Professional's Choice's new Blue Bolt give it an exceptionally smooth swing, while reserve world champion Cesar de la Cruz says Classic's lightweight Heat feels better than anything he's ever used.
More and more rope-makers are getting on the lighter-and-faster bandwagon. Gary Sutton introduced the Supernova last spring, along with his smallest-and-fastest Supernova Lite four-strand. And Robert Calloway is about to launch his smallest yet, the four-strand lime-green Limeanator, also faster and with more body because of the way it's twisted. Lyles Ropes is introducing a couple of brightly-colored numbers called the 4x4 III and the 3RX, while Running P has evolved its four-strand RP4 into the RP4 Achiever.
The movement is across the board, as four-strands are being made smaller than their three-strand forebears and three-strand ropes now have the body to resemble four-strands. Travis Tryan's favorite rope, Classic's Bullseye, has the texture of three strands, but a core and weighted tip that give it the body of a four-strand. On the other hand, the small four-strands are now tighter, slicker and faster than a lot of three-strands.
Tyler Magnus, who owned a rope company called Blue Line in the early 1990s, recently began developing his own ropes again. His Super 3 editions have a special red fiber that makes them feel like four-strands.
"I put quite a bit of force on my swing and use a pretty small loop," he said. "And this gives me more accuracy."
What's the real difference in that extra strand? Cactus production manager Barry Berg has said a three-strand has more feel at your hand, and a four-strand has more feel in the tip. In the past, an extra strand could help reduce "bounce" and add longevity to the rope, but it could also add resistance and slow down the action (wave-offs and slipped legs).
Basically, rope-making is a work in progress. As Magnus said, "It's tricky to not twist one tight, but still have it withstand jerks, have tip speed, stay open on delivery, and last a long time."
Every year improvements are made in the 150-plus different kinds of ropes out there, so we broke down the elements of a new rope according to your personal needs, below, to help you pack your ropebag with the tools that'll bring in the big paychecks.
Texture, Weight and Body
How do you like a rope to feel in your hand?
If you like the rougher feel of ridges in your hand, go with a three-strand, which has 25 percent fewer crowns than a four-strand. Or try something entirely different with The Rope Shop's abrasion-resistant wax-free ropes, which you may not have to break in and which don't pick up rubber or gunk from the arena floor.
If you grew up with a big old true nylon and that feels most comfortable to you, it's still out there in ropes like Dub Grant's White Winner, King's Nylon or Classic's Gold. To get a little weight in a rope, look for poly blends, four-strands and cores.
Remember that if you take a rope and stop swinging it, it should come back round, not oblong (no matter how soft it is). If your rope doesn't have enough body, it'll feel dead when you swing and deliver it. If it has too much body, it'll feel bouncy and you'll have a tendency to wave it off or heel steers up around the belly, thus slipping legs or missing dallies.
Materials and Lays
How pliable, long-lasting and visible do you want your rope?
Different color dyes not only make a rope easier to see, but can reduce slippage at the horn and affect the way it feels to swing. Cactus dyed a few of its blue Hypnotics pink for Tough Enough to Wear Pink tight at the NFR, and Allen Bach and Clay O'Brien Cooper swear they feel even better than the blue versions.
Poly blended into a rope can give it weight and longevity, as can lower crowns, which mean less friction. Trevor Brazile thinks pure nylon ropes are apt to be straighter, so he prefers a poly blend to give him a forward kick (the opposite of a backswing) in head ropes.
Guys like Clay Tryan and Jake Barnes subscribe to the "smaller the horns, the softer the lay" theory. But Barry Berg, who started the tiny-is-better revolution, says that to be fast on small horns, a rope doesn't need to be softer or lighter-just smaller (as long as it has enough body).
Where do you live and rope?
Ropes can stiffen in heat, so the general rule is to go softer in summer and harder in cold temperatures. Also, one rope-maker believes that it's harder to get three-strand ropes to hold their memory in the winter. Several companies claim their ropes don't change with the thermometer, including wax-free ropes, but personal experience might be the best guide.
USTRC and Wrangler Team Roping Championships heeling champ Jimmi Jo Ripsam of snowy Denver likes all-nylon ropes from Magnus Equine and Fast Back. And NFR header Brandon Beers of Oregon likes Classic's all-nylon Heat because of its climate consistency. "I roped with it at my circuit finals three weeks ago where it was 28 degrees and again at the NFR where it was 58 degrees and it still felt great," he says.
On the other hand, all-around champion of the world Trevor Brazile heads with the blended Mach 4 most of the year because he thinks all-nylon ropes don't keep their load, or forward kick, as well in colder temperatures.
How hard do you throw and how far do you reach?
Defending George Strait Classic heeling champ Jhett Johnson uses a heavy, very stiff Powerline because he throws hard and that rope, with a center core, will stay open. Eight-time NFR header David Key likes his super soft Amigo four-strand because it isn't bouncy or apt to wave off.
Seventeen years ago, Sandy Stephens waved one off for Steve Purcella for big bucks, and later decided to build a rope with the action already in it. His Tip Xceleration ropes have weight at the leading edge of the loop so the top strand curls on its own around the horns and follows through under the feet.
When Trevor Brazile won the 2007 steer roping world title, he used Fast Back's Iron Silk in a 10.0 extra-soft for all 10 rounds. Brazile switched to the American texturized poly from Japanese poly because he didn't have to take as much off his delivery for it to stay open. "It's a lot easier to rope aggressive when you have something with a lot of body," he said.
What's your skill level, body size, and style?
"A beginner needs a rope to be pliable in their hand, where it's not intimidating and turns over easy, but also maintains body and longevity," said renowned clinician Tyler Magnus.
A looser-twisted rope will be more forgiving and run less at the horn. And don't forget to think about balance between your hands. Speed Williams likes an extra two feet of length, while Trevor Brazile prefers shorter ropes because he holds smaller coils.
Speaking of coils, Gary Sutton says only his and Classic's ropes rebound well in the coil area. "Most companies just load the first coils," he said. "But backswing comes from further back in the coils, so we put our load in further back."
No backswing is the No. 1 requirement of Cruel Girl champion header Taya Ellerman, who prefers an extra-soft Magnus Equine Super 4 for that reason, while Wildfire and Reno Rodeo Invitational Ladies heading champs Jamie Mader and Shea Durbin stick with Sutton's no-backswing guarantee.
You want your rope working for you, not against you. It should swing freely in all seasons and feel like an extension of your hand, not its worst enemy.