Q: Dear Allen,
As a heeler, my biggest problem is position. I seem to crowd too much after the steer has been turned for me. Can you give me some advice as to how far I should stay from the steer? The speed also sometimes gives me trouble. Should I ride wider on slower steers and closer on faster steers? On smaller and faster cattle, I'm having trouble riding through the corner. It seems like I end up too high or too low on the cattle. What can I do to fix all this?
A: I think of my runs from stride to stride. So the start that I get out of the box, the very first stride, has everything to do with my position. I want to make sure my hips and my shoulders and my horse are square with the steer so I don't let my horse break toward the pin and get his right lead. I keep my horse parallel to the steer. That's important so that I can keep my spacing to the right of the steer correct and leave early enough that I can keep the steer from going right.
Depending on the arena conditions, your start means everything. Some steers are dominant to the left or right, so it's important that my heel horses score and break from the box just as good as the head horses do. I start off thinking about the very first stride: where am I at? If my spacing is good and I can haze the steer, I feel like my run has started off good. If I'm late, a lot of times what happens to me when I deliver was caused by that first stride out of the box. The cause and effect of making a run is so important that I need to make sure I'm where I need to be jump one, jump two, jump three, jump four all the way to the end of the run. I want to maintain my horse's spacing. A lot of horses-and humans-want to anticipate coming in on a steer before the steer really turns. If a head horse leaves out of there too early, a lot of times that will cause a heeler to lean and then their horse will leak to the left. Even though the steer hasn't turned and you started your spacing at about 10 feet from the steer, but then let your horse leak in to four feet, when the steer does turn, you'll be too close and won't be able to see the steer's feet. You need to keep your spacing in jumps two, three and four and not lean and allow your horse to cut the corner.
I keep my posture straight and watch the hocks of the steer and in my periphery I see the hips. I maintain my posture until I see the hips make a move. I want to be 10 feet away when that steer makes a move. That way, when the steer starts to move, I see the feet out in front of me, I keep my forward momentum coming into the steer and I have everything under control. I never change my swing or my body position, so I'm able to maintain my timing all the way around the corner because I can see the feet. It's important for a heeler not to ride too high or too narrow, so when they turn they can always see the feet. If I'm in there too close, I'll have to be sitting back pulling on my horse, maybe raising the tip of my rope up and affecting my swing.
This picture is an example of me being a little narrower than I wanted to be and a little tighter, so I won't be able to rope that steer on the first jump because I can't really see his left leg as clearly as I need to. I would have liked to have been a little wider and kept my horse wider.
If I could have seen that left leg and I would have had good position, he would have been ropable on that first jump, instead I have to wait two or three more jumps.
In this picture, I feel like my spacing is better and I'm up here watching my target better. If I'm patient and I don't let my horse move in, I've got really good spacing and can see his feet coming around the corner. I've set myself up here to be able to rope that steer right when he turns if I want to. One of the most important principles of position is-as you're coming in-you can keep your horse's forward momentum through the corner. If I can rope him on the first jump, great, but I don't want that to be my only shot. I want to be prepared to rope that steer whenever he cleans up and not have that horse take a shot away from me. If you're riding too high or too tight, you take away your horse's ability to maintain that forward propulsion.
This picture is an example of not riding quite as wide. My spacing isn't but 7 foot here, and I'm a little bit higher so I can deal with these steers that ran a little harder and might get away from me. If I'm riding a real cowy horse, my spacing might be a little different. I might ride 7 feet out, knowing that he's so quick footed and cowy that he's going to be able to get collected and turned and still be able to be moving through the corner real well. How quick-footed and cowy your horse is will determine how high and wide you can ride. Another factor is how sharp are the corners your header is giving you. If he floats them down the arena a little bit, then you want to ride a little bit higher. With a header who ropes and lets his horse drop out of there-if you're not riding a little narrower and back a little bit-you won't be able to get to the inside and make that corner.
In this picture, I have a wider spacing-about 10 feet wide-and that would be where I need to be to make sure I'm not on top of things if that steer comes around and handles slow or gets heavy. My partner's not going to get the steer away from me, he's not so fresh that he's going to run up the rope and get away from me. I have total control here as that steer turns and I won't ever be too close on him all the way around the corner. How high you ride and your spacing has to do with what kind of horse your riding. With a green horse, you would want to ride him a little wider-like 10 foot-and not too high. The narrower and the higher you ride them takes an advanced, quick-footed, cowy horse. You can take the confidence out of a horse by forcing him too narrow and high too early. They'll end up floating by or running past the corner. I like to keep a younger horse back a little more so they can see the steer in front of them and the pattern they're coming in is a nice, slow easy curve. Then work them higher and narrower as they get more advanced.
As far as the spacing on my delivery, this is where I want to be. I don't want to be right up on top of them, but I want to be close enough that as that steer is moving away from me and as that rope gets to his right leg, I can be reaching down between my saddle horn and his legs and hold my slack up so I don't lose legs. If you get to reaching out in front of you too much, by the time you get your slack back to the horn, you might lose legs. There are lots of times, too, if you're roping too close, it makes it really hard on your delivery. Right in here is an example of where I like to rope from. I think when you rope the sawhorse or the mechanical steer, you have to find out where you're the most comfortable making your delivery. If you like to be a little closer and you feel like your loops work good closer, then you can set your whole position up for that. If you think you rope a little better with the steer out in front of you and you want your arm extended and a little bit of spacing, then you have to work on that. So many times in my schools, the reason that people get in too close is when they're swinging their rope really fast, they're kicking their horse with their feet and they don't realize it. They're pushing their horse in too close on the corner. If you want to keep your spacing around there and keep the feet out in front of you so you can rope fast, but yet keep your spacing, you've got to work on not pushing your horse into the corner too much. Learn to separate what your hands and feet are doing. Use a little bit more left hand, keep your spacing and don't push with you're feet. If you are using your left hand and pushing him with your feet, you'll get your horse loaded up in your hand and he'll get hard-mouthed on you.