Partner Pitfalls: Choosing a Great Teammate (and Being One)
Getting in the zone means everything should feel right, including your partner. Experts weigh in on choosing a great teammate—and being one.

As a team roper, you know how a particular horse or rope can affect your catch ratio. But what about your choice of partner? If you don’t think your relationship with the guy or gal in the box next to yours impacts your performance, just ask nine-time NFR heeler Jake Long.

In his world, partners are also de facto best friends. So when things go wrong, both sides get to trying so hard for the other guy that it’s almost suffocating. And that becomes a downward spiral.

“Once rodeo partners decide to quit roping together, all that pressure lifts off,” Long said. “It almost never fails—a team splitting up will win everything that last two weeks they were still entered. Out here, we’ll joke that we’re going to fake cut each other for a while.”

When you’re trying too hard, it can be really difficult to get a slump turned around or even win at all. But pressure is only one death knell to a partnership.

The opposite of pressure is a supportive environment. In the past 30 years, only Allen Bach earned four gold buckles with four different partners. The man is so encouraging and positive to his partners that pressure just dissipates.

Jake Long Talks Building a Run with Your Partner

“I didn’t start off being that solid, balanced person always trying to produce a good atmosphere around my partner,” he admitted. “I started off just as spoiled as a lot of people and man, I wanted to win. It was really hard for me not to show emotions when someone broke the barrier or missed at a crucial time. It takes maturity. And I think now, guys realize right away that throwing their head around and showing disappointment in front of their partner, all that does is come back to bite them in the butt.”

Chad Masters says, in his experience, guys like Joseph Harrison and Wesley Thorp know how to pretend your mistake didn’t happen.

“If I just chalupa one, those guys will act like we won the day money and ask where we’re going to eat,” Masters pointed out. “That sure helps the program.”

It pays to let go of issues over the long run, as well, since you never know when an ex-partner could become a great future partner. Long roped with Coleman Proctor in 2008 and wound up 38th in the world. When they re-teamed in 2015, they almost won the NFR average.

Heeler Jake Long has spent nearly six of his past 11 seasons roping behind a Tryan—either Clay, Travis or Brady. TRJ File Photo

“I’ve always tried to separate the roping from anything that didn’t happen during the run,” Long said.

That’s the exact advice of Dr. Nora Hunt-Lee, a sports psychologist who is also one of the winningest amateur team ropers in America. Last December at Ariat WSTR Finale XIV, she and her partner earned $257,000 in the #10.5—on top of the $167,000 she and another partner earned in the #11.5 a couple of years earlier.

“You know what I tell my son?” she asked. “You’ve got to feel good to heel good.”

What she means is that you’re not go-ing to perform well under any kind of negativity, which can arise from pressure or hurt feelings or doubts relating to your relationship with your partner.

“Your performance is a reflection of how you feel,” she continued. “Rope with people you feel good around.”

How to Be the Best Possible Partner with Jake Barnes

That’s paid off for colt starter Brook Bearden. The 6.5 header and owner of Star B Performance Horses near Stephenville, Texas, got to know Tee Woolman, a 7 heeler, when they were flagging jackpots. The two never ran a practice steer together but paired up at Finale XIV to place in the #13.5 for $38,000.

“Right before the short round, I asked, ‘Are you nervous, Tee? That’s a lot of money for an old man!’” Bearden recalled. “Tee said, ‘Why would I be, when I’ve got you heading for me?’ We laughed. He’s a lot of fun.”

Joking around with his buddy meant Bearden wasn’t fazed by spinning steers for the Hall-of-Famer.

“We get along real good,” Bearden said. “I won’t rope with anybody so set on winning that they have attitude. I don’t need it. About 3% of ropers make a living doing this and the rest of us are just having fun. I like roping with my friends. We’re doing this to have a good time. If we win, it’s just icing on the cake.”

Relationship issues

Your own hidden core beliefs can cause problems, too. If, for instance, you believe it’s difficult to win a roping with someone you hardly know, you share that sentiment with LaRae Branham (whose paycheck with Rick Steed in the #11.5 at Finale XIV was $138,000). But it happens! Branham got beat at the Perfect 10 by just such a team of strangers.

Or maybe you believe you only deserve to win if you practice hard. Then, you discover your Vegas partner hasn’t chased a live steer in a month and is riding a horse he’s never ridden before. That could mess with you. You’ve got to catch those doubts and replace them with optimism.

Of course, you also don’t want a partner with hidden beliefs. In this magazine, the legendary Jake Barnes has said he doesn’t believe in being “snakebit.” But we all know people who think they are. They insist they get bad breaks or can’t win at those big ropings, etc.

“I try to eliminate that variable of negativity in partners,” Dr. Hunt-Lee said. “When I’m looking for a partner, I want them to have something called self-efficacy. I want to rope with somebody who believes they deserve to win. But I need them to be okay with losing, also. My partners are confident. But they don’t react to me any differently after a sweet handle for $150,000 than if I bomb one. They’re still going to smile. They go with the flow.”

Or, maybe you paired back up with someone who used to overlook you as a partner and your resentment never died. Or, you gave your last hole at the local jackpot to your neighbor just before a better partner asked you to rope, so you circled back to the neighbor and told a white lie about how you forgot you were full.

Depending on your values, that could have no effect on you. Or, anger or guilt could chase that first steer with you. It’s a good idea to be honest with yourself about how you feel. Roping under the burden of negative emotions or pressure amounts to roping defensively or like you have something to prove.

“It’s tough for me to be at my personal best when I rope with someone that I perceive puts pressure on me,” Dr. Hunt-Lee said. “But we can only put pressure on ourselves.”

Recently, Dr. Hunt-Lee asked World All-Around Champion Junior Nogueira to rope in the #15.5 at a nearby roping.

“I couldn’t handle the pressure,” she re-called. “I didn’t score well and waved it off. I was mortified, but what I learned from that is I need to do it more. Pressure handicaps you; you’re not going to win that way. I presume that when Clay [Cooper] ropes with the Nevada kids around here, he probably searches for one that doesn’t make him out to be a god, so he knows his little header can just go catch steers and not get nervous and spit the bit. We get in our own way.”

Masters, the two-time World Champ from Tennessee, distinctly remembers being a 21-year-old kid and drawing Cooper at a roping in Amarillo. When he saw the draw, he almost puked. Then, he was so afraid to break out, he turned his horse sideways in the box and was literally facing Clay when he nodded. Divine intervention gave him a second gate and they won the roping that day. But it reminds him of something Speedy [Williams] once told him.

“You have to just go do your job,” he said. “So I try to know, whether I’m heading for my dad, who’s 78, or Wesley [Thorp], the reigning World Champ, I still have a job to do.”

Moving on

Have you asked yourself lately if your partnership is working for you? If not, it takes open communication and honesty to convey that.

“If you’ve gone to 20 ropings and haven’t won a check, maybe suggest doing something different for the next couple of ropings,” Long said. “You need to detach the emotion from it and you can always partner back up if you handle it properly.”

Possibly, your styles don’t complement each other. Or there might be no apparent reason you don’t seem to win with each other. Maybe one of you is virtually afoot. Masters hits the nail on the head when he says, “a good head horse fixes a lot of partnerships.”

Anyway, if you change your mind about roping, be up-front about it while giving your partner plenty of time to find someone else. If you’re doing the quitting, stress that it’s not personal. If you’re on the other end? Try not to make it personal.

“When someone cuts you, it’s hard not to be emotional about it,” Long said. “Your pride wants to kick in, but you have to push that down and look at the bigger picture. You’ll get another partner and it could be a blessing in disguise.”

Limited rodeos often match unfamiliar partners. Eight years ago, Chad Masters was paired in San Antonio with Jake Long before winning that year’s gold buckle with the help of his childhood idol, Clay O’Brien Cooper. TRJ File Photo

Dr. Hunt-Lee says the way you perceive the split can affect your performance. Getting cut could be the most devastating thing in the world or it could make you mentally tougher and propel you to bigger wins.

“What if you were so full of faith that you trust you’ll find someone who fits you better?” Dr. Hunt-Lee asked.

Partner navigation can be a tough in a sport based so heavily on friendship, yet is so competitive. Whether your partner is your neighbor or has been to the NFR, or whether he or she cut you in the past or is brand-new, Dr. Hunt-Lee’s advice mirrors that of the only man with eight heading gold buckles: don’t get distracted from your job. Shoot your shot; rope your roping.

Because, at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be great if your partnership was the opposite of a distraction?

“When you get there and put your money up, you want a rope that you can’t wait to swing because it feels so good,” Long said. “You want to be pumped you’re saddling that particular horse for those runs that day. And you want a partner who gets you fired up to go rope.” 

TRJ File Photo

Decisions, decisions

Before you pick a partner, consider your “why.” 

Maybe your goal, instead of simply winning $1,500 at the event, is to make memories with your father-in-law. Maybe it’s simply to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, regard-less of partner. Or maybe you’re just out to do what you love with people you love. Then your preferred partners are automatic choices.

Outside of that, look beyond someone who ropes well to find a partner with a complementary style, says NFR heeler Jake Long (who’s now roped for a living with all three Tryan brothers). 

“As a heeler, know what style of header you rope best behind,” he explained. “Notice whether a potential partner really slows a steer down in the corner or goes really fast and whether that works for you.”

Remember, he says, the guy or gal who ropes best doesn’t necessarily produce the best results with you. You’ve got to honestly analyze your style and that of a potential partner. You should also consider whether someone is one-dimensional or has the full game, says four-time World Champ Allen Bach.

Does that potential partner always run to the hip or always tend to bomb? Throw on the corner too often? Struggle with scoring or hazing? Ultimately, Bach says, consistency should probably be your go-to. Preston Porter, who won over five figures in the #10.5 at Finale XIV with Lane Siggins heading, said consistency is also his main requirement. Followed closely by effort.

“It’s so expensive to go,” he pointed out. “We have so much money tied up in our horses and rigs that you want to rope with people who can catch. But I also rope with one gal who, even if she missed every steer, I’d enter with her the very next day because I know she’s giving 100% every time. She feels that way about me, too.” 

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