How to Win in Team Roping: Headers' Edition

Heading Edition In the lower divisions, what specific skills separate the consistent winners from the rest of the pack? We surveyed the industry’s leaders and top producers for their seasoned perspectives.

BJ Lopez celebrating a win in the #9.5 at the Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale back in 2019. | Jennings Photography

Ropers at the USTRC's Cinch National Finals of Team Roping
Andersen/Cbarc photography

“He wins every week.”

 “That guy never misses.” 

“She’s a great run in the #8.5.”

At every jackpot, big or small, you’re bound to notice someone who stands out—who knows how to win in team roping. Someone who, more often than not, has a callback or two in the short round and walks to the pay window once or twice throughout the day. Of course, this roping game is much more affordable when you’re cashing checks week after week, so what exactly is the secret to winning in team roping’s lower divisions against people with the same number and skill as you? Those who study the number system and teach plenty of schools might just know best. 

Ropers at the USTRC's Cinch National Finals of Team Roping in Fort Worth, Texas's Will Rogers Memorial Center
Ropers who communicate what they’re going to do with their partners, and then execute, have a higher success rate overall. | Andersen/CbarCphotography

Cory Johnson, Producer, The Roping Co

The Secret: ‭ ‬Ability to handle adversity.

Why? In a team roping run, there are five minds involved: the header, heeler, steer, head horse and heel horse. If you’re really lucky, they’re all on the same page. In the high-numbered ropings, you generally have four minds working together—the header, head horse, heeler and heel horse. As you get to the lower-numbered ropings, they generally don’t practice as much, so they’re not as comfortable with their horses, so maybe their minds aren’t working together.

Maybe you and your partner know what you’re doing, but your horses don’t. Or maybe you and your horse know each other’s plan, but you and your partner don’t. But the better end of the low numbers know their horses, and their partners know what they’re going to do, too. There are ropers on the higher end of the lower-numbered ropings have steers that run left, and they know how to get by a steer that moves to the right fence, they know how to get by a head ducker, or they know how to get by one that drags. If a steer runs to the left, they ride to the left.

For a lot of ropers, though, they’re only comfortable on cattle that all do the same thing. If they draw a steer that does anything different, they’re out. The lower end of the lower numbers don’t know how to handle things that aren’t perfect. The more cowboy end of the ropers probably win more because they can handle adversity.  

Troy Shelley, Producer, Shelley Productions

The Secret: Catching and handling cattle. 

Why? Catching is a given. They’re riding horses that generally will run up there and back off, and stay there and let them have a chance rather than something pressing on them trying to run by.  But the biggest thing after that is that they’re slowing down and letting their heelers have a chance to catch up. What I see a lot of the lower-number ropers do is go toward the back end. The ropers who generally get the steers caught, they go back up toward that corner. 

Mac Fairey of Moodey, Texas at the #8.5 Ariat WSTR Finale
Mac Fairey of Moodey,Texas backed into the box to win the #8.5 Ariat WSTR Finale and $244,000 in 2021. Andersen/CbarCphotography

Chris Francis, Producer, Mathews Land & Cattle

The Secret: Entering. 

Why? The best headersin those lower-numbered divisions are the ones who enter the #12.5 and #13.5, and they may or may not do well in those divisions. But as the weekend goes on, those guys seem to stand out in the #8.5 to #10.5 since they’ve kind of entered a little above what they maybe should have, and it feels easier to them as the steers soften and the setup is easier. I think in all things you tend to get out what you put in, so whether it’s a confidence thing or not, the best headers in the low numbers seem to be the ones who’ve entered a little more throughout the weekend. 

Ty Yost, President, Roping Operations

The Secrets: Letting the steer dictate the run, having a good attitude and doing your job.

Why? Ropers who win consistently in the lower-numbered ropigns don’t ever, ever let their minds dictate their runs. They let the steer dictate the run. They don’t have the skillset to drop three coils, so they don’t take themselves out of the roping by trying. It’s so much like golf: They don’t try to pull off shots they can’t make. In golf, you don’t try to drive the ball 300 yards across the water if that’s not in your ability. You lay it up, and then hit it over. It’s just like roping. Don’t try to pull off shots you don’t have.  

They also have great attitudes, and they don’t complain. They put themselves in a position to rope and handle that steer, no matter what sort of steer they draw. 

If you don’t do your job, it doesn’t matter your style. I really don’t want anyone picking apart my swing; I just want to be out in the arena making runs. If ropers do their job, at the amateur level, you can see the results across the board. I look at amateur ropers who have won more than anybody, and the common denominator is that they just don’t screw up. You won’t make amazing highlight-reel videos of their runs, and you won’t see snappy head loops. They rope and pick their horses up and handle their steers, and they give their heelers 10 times the shot. 

Ronnie Ward and Tommy Simpson winning an Ariat WSTR #8.5 Qualifier produced by Mathews Land & Cattle
Ronnie Ward and Tommy Simpson winning an Ariat WSTR #8.5 Qualifier produced by Mathews Land & Cattle this may in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Shelby Lynn Photography

Denny Gentry, Founder, USTRC, WSTR & Riata Buckle

The Secret: Consistency. 

Why? Their catch percentage is over a certain level. Those old men who are continually in the winner’s circle on the heading side, you know what they’re going to do. Every heeler knows exactly what they’ll get every time. A lot of low-numbered ropers rope well, but they’re wild. They’re lower numbered because there’s still something to this team thing in team roping. I have guys I rope with that I don’t know from one time to the next what they’re going to do. You can talk about it all day in the practice pen and before the roping, but they get there, and their adrenaline gets pumping, and their whole game will change. 

They get it in their heads that they can be something different than the very best 3 or 4 they can be. They need to not have it in their heads that they’re two numbers ahead. If you could rope like a 6, you wouldn’t be a 4. Say you need to be fast on a go-round run. They think they’ll push the barrier and throw rope. The older guys who jackpot a lot have slowed down with their age and their practice, but they know what it takes to win. And that’s what the other guys with the same number don’t understand. You handle your part, and it will work out. Personally, I rope with women and win with women. They are methodical. When they are locked into a routine, they are defaulting to it. I have heard people say they win more with women and old men than anyone, and that’s the truth. 

John Johnson, Producer, JX2 Productions

The Secret: Horsepower.

Why? They ride good horses, and I think most of those guys rope right to left, ride to good position and have a consistent catch ratio. They might not be near as fast, but they’re extremely consistent. These ropers ride to the same position every time and, obviously when you do that, your consistency level is extremely high. They give their heelers opportunities, and that’s the biggest difference. The World Series barrier allows those guys who don’t have a chance to practice as much to do groundwork, maintain good horses and have a chance to compete at a higher level. Those divisions pay extremely well. It justifies going and buying those really good horses. That’s the biggest thing I see.

Ferron Lucero, Announcer, USTRC, WSTR and NTR

The Secret: Consistency.

Why? Consistency is catching in the lower numbers. It can be a barrier, it can be a neck, it can be a leg. But ultimately, you’re not trying to overload your skillset. The game right now is to catch. These #7s and #8.5s can pay on two head. Sometimes second, third and fourth are on three head. The ropers who win are more consistent, not fast. As you move up the scale, speed and consistency come into play. The ones people complain most about are just catchers. There are guys who don’t rope very good who look like they’ll fall off or their horse is going to get jerked down when they turn the steer, but they catch. They try to catch something every time they nod their head. They’re not intending not to exceed their skill level, but they’re just learning. They keep their head.

If they miss, they don’t throw their rope, they don’t throw their head back and they don’t throw a fit. It’s those intangibles. It’s a mindset. It works for every level. The ones who start moving up the scale faster are the ones who are able to separate the fact that they don’t need to be fast—they just need to catch. AS they become more consistent, they start to add speed. It’s not winning that gets your number raised—it’s how you win. If you’re 34 on 4 in the #9.5, you don’t belong there. When you’re consistent at a faster rate, that’s where you run into issues. People get that all mixed up. 

Matt Sherwood, Two-time World Champion Header, Roping.com Coach 

The Secret: Taking an aggressive start.

Why? They give themselves a chance to be faster with the same exact shot. In the #7, #8.5 and #9.5, we shouldn’t be talking about reaching yet. So the ropers in those divisions need to ride to the steer and get in a solid position to rope. But if you’re timid at the barrier and timid riding your horse, you’re going to be 10 seconds by the time you get to that position. But someone who takes an aggressive start will be in position in 8 seconds. Those ropers feel more confident and have more time.

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