The Perfect Practice Pen

So you’ve found the right spot, you’ve got a line on some good steers and a few barrels, and you’re ready to put together your own arena. From the ground to the perimeter; the boxes to the gates, there are a million ways to do it right, as NFR qualifiers Turtle and Molly Powell quickly discovered when they set about putting up their very first arena just a few months ago.

It’s hard to believe that while Molly’s barrel raced at 10 NFRs and Turtle has headed at the Big Show three different times, the couple has never had their own arena. But because both have ridden in more different pens than the American flag, they had a darn good idea what they wanted-and didn’t.

“First, we had the area leveled and made it run uphill,” Molly says. “We think a slight uphill grade encourages a horse to work on its hind end.”

Next, the Powells had to decide what to do about their bottomless sand, which they stopped measuring at four feet in one spot.

“Team ropers shouldn’t have it deep,” Turtle says. “For me, I want it hoof-deep, but not hard. Molly doesn’t want it deep, either, but she wants it so that when she’s going full-blast and her horse tries to get down and turn, it will hold him.”

The pair settled on a compromise. Rather than scrape all that sand off to the clay base underneath and start fresh, they opted to start slowly hauling in clay and working it into the sand. They drag after every barrel run and every pen of steers, and eventually plan to install a watering system.

“You don’t want to get real aggressive with your ground; that’s where you screw up and it gets way too hard or too deep,” Turtle says.

So, don’t get too rash, and consider the pros and cons of your dirt. Sand can get too deep, but then it can also take an inch of rain and still allow you to rope.

“I grew up in black dirt,” says Turtle. “If it rains, you’re done for a while. You can’t ever get that stuff good. If you hit it just right, it’ll be good for about a couple of days.”

Dirt debate
Dirt is a girl’s best friend, though, according to Rachael Myllymaki. Not the dark gumbo kind, but the good sandy dirt of the Rockies. She advises checking what’s underneath your designated arena well before going any further.

“Dig it up in a few spots and make sure it’s not rock under there, or you’ll be picking rocks up and cussing yourself every day,” she said.

Myllymaki ran barrels at her first of seven NFRs back in 1988. But she’s also a veteran team roper, and while busy on the NFR trail in the mid-1990s, her team roping skills made her one of only four women to have won back-to-back all-around championships at the National High School Finals Rodeo.

She roped and ran barrels while growing up in Montana, while living in Arizona with then-husband and NFR header Shain Sproul, and more recently in Simi Valley, Calif.

“I like the ground in Montana best because the moisture stays in it longer, so you can keep ripping it up,” she says. “In California, it dries out real quick and can get hard. And it’s real sandy in Arizona.”

While Turtle appreciates how much water sand can take, Myllymaki says it’s less reliable than dirt in terms of moisture.

“Sand is funny,” she says. “If it’s wet, it can feel sticky and a horse might bounce on his front end. If it’s dry, it rolls and feels like you’re on ice. The moisture in dirt is easier for me to gauge. Maybe that’s just because I was raised in dirt. Maybe sand people would totally disagree with me.”

NFR qualifiers Kevin and Ember Stewart can relate to the “look at what’s underneath” mantra, as they have fully four different kinds of ground on their Casa Roja Ranch. Ember, a Wyoming native who ran barrels at the 1997 NFR, regularly works up a patch of ground in red clay near her barn, but also makes runs in their arena of riverbank sand which, luckily, is the perfect depth.

“I like this fine sand because it’s not hard on splint boots and stuff,” says Kevin, who headed at 10 NFRs and recently won a pickup heeling. “And it doesn’t eat up ropes that drag through it like course sand, so I can let my rope go and let my horse relax. The biggest drawback is that it does get dusty.”

Most experts agree a mix is best, but regardless of whether your ground is dirt, clay or sand, there are proven maintenance strategies for each (see online sidebar at Finally, no discussion of ground is complete without mentioning those barrel ruts that inevitably gape right in the path of a team roping run. What to do?

Ember sets her pattern from the opposite end of the chutes to move the ruts further out, but Molly will only work her barrels from one direction.

“I say it’s like a woman getting on a man about the toilet seat,” quips Turtle. “If you use it, leave it like it was when you found it. If you run barrels, drag your ruts back in. Every time she runs, we jump on the tractor and pack it and bring it back over, and we’ve never had a problem.”

Size matters
A pro-caliber regulation barrel pattern requires at least 120 feet of width and 250 feet of length, and for that event and team roping, most veterans recommend a 150′ by 300′ arena with center gates at both ends.

You want to plan plenty of space for rope horses, but also vary your barrel pattern so you can set the cans 25 feet off the fence and teach a horse to hunt a barrel, or 15 feet off to teach a claustrophobic or green horse he’ll have plenty of room to make the turn.

Turtle and Molly like to utilize fences while practicing, so they made their arena 140′ by 250′ (with a 10-foot return alley) from chute to chute.

“Fences help a horse rate, and we want to familiarize our young horses with fences they’ll see in competition,” Molly says. “I use it as an aid to working my barrel horses and Turtle wants to be able to teach a head horse how to pull up the fence.”

Turtle was initially nervous they’d made the arena too short, but says it’s worked out perfect.

“I’ve gone to places where they have 300 feet and it seems like that back third never even gets used,” he says. “You spend all your time riding all the way from the stripping chute back to the box.”

Myllymaki, however, designed her pipe arena in Montana to be 150′ by 350′ so she can close the gates and still have a lot of stopping room on her barrel horse. The Stewarts like their 160′ by 300′ pen, which easily housed team roping and barrel racing jackpots into the early 1990s.

For fencing, there are as many possibilities as there are materials. The Powells wanted to remove the potential for a horse to get a leg hung up in cable fencing, so they went with a high-tension wire that has some give, topped by a five-foot pipe rail and anchored by pipe posts.

When Kevin Stewart and his stepdad were building their arena back in 1982, they got a great deal on some guardrail. Turns out they haven’t had to do any repairs in 25 years, despite horses and cattle colliding with it on occasion.

It’s important to Kevin that the boxes sit outside the arena perimeter, so gates can close them off while a lead steer is being followed. At the other end, Ember values the long double gates at the center that open through the catch pen.

“When you swing both gates open it creates an alley, which is great for colts and provides a longer run to the first barrel,” says Ember.

Powells’ boxes also sit outside the arena so they can be shut away while riding colts, and they went with a single center gate to the left of the head box. Molly, who only works her horses from that end, prefers not to rely on an alley.

Geometric strategy
Possibly the two biggest things that will affect your steers’ pattern-and therefore your roping practice-are where you place your boxes and your stripping chute.

“My heel box is probably 25 feet off the right fence,” Kevin says. “And I think 40 feet would be better. As it is now, my horse never has to learn to move over to the right very far. At the same time, nothing goes left because the heeler always gets pinched off. So my green horses don’t really learn to move over to the left, either.”

Turtle put his heel box 30 feet from the right fence and wondered if it would be too close, but discovered it’s just right, relatively speaking. Kevin’s stripping chute is 14 feet off the right fence with a right-hand approach, hence his straight-running steers.

“I hate it when stripping chutes are set up to enter from the left, because about the time you get to a steer, it falls under your head horse and that can get you in a wreck,” Kevin says.

Turtle, on the other hand, doesn’t like the way right-handed stripping chutes can make steers hug the right fence, so he turned his around the way he’d seen done at Jake and Jimmie Cooper’s arena. He reports his steers are running down the center, which is especially nice if he’s out roping by himself. Don’t like taking your rope off with your left hand? You can always turn your horse around, he says.

Back at the boxes, Kevin and Turtle both advocate installing v-shaped chutes, from 12-18 inches at the bottom widening to 30 inches at horn level, so steers can’t turn around but don’t get hung up. Also, carefully consider the gadgets to keep them from backing up.

“I don’t prefer gates they have to duck under because they get their heads hung up,” says Kevin, who jumps his over hock-high bars. “Plus, that pipe always falls down on their spine after they duck under it and that makes them harder to load.”

Kevin’s boxes are 16′ by 12′, but today he would go with that new-fangled adjustable back rail so he could work his horses under different conditions. Turtle is enjoying that exact setup, with which he can make his head box 14,’ 16′ or 18′ long.

“What I like is that when you’re teaching a young horse to leave the box, you can let the horse go with the gate at 18 feet and not be out right on top of a steer,” Turtle says. “Or, you can make it 14 feet and score and stand there but still catch up at a decent spot.”

What’s more, the sleeved rear pipe rail also rotates up and over to allow a tractor to drag through the entire box or pack it prior to rainfall. At four inches in diameter, the pipe is heavy enough that a horse can set on it but not too heavy for one person to adjust. And it’s 34 inches off the ground -well above a horse’s hock but not so high that a short horse can get his butt under it if he squats.

Both of Turtle’s boxes allow room to ride around and push up steers, but his 16-foot heel box is not adjustable. As for width, most arenas in which you’ll compete have boxes 10 to 12 feet wide, so stay within those standards when practicing. If your box is too wide and your steer goes right, it’s hard on head horses, Turtle says. If you make it too narrow and a steer moves at all to the left, the header can’t get left fast enough and will fall in behind the steer.

By learning from others’ mistakes, checking out all the latest technology and researching your ground, you’ll not only have a safe place to practice, but should be on your way to recouping a little of that investment with some first-place checks.

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