As more and more upper-class businessmen get addicted to chasing steers, demand for rope horses is racing through the roof with prices riding shotgun. The cost of a great horse may seem like it's spiraling out of sight, but here's a fact that'll ease your mind-experts agree the single biggest mistake horse-buyers make is trying to find the great horse instead of the right horse.
So whether you're just kick-starting a new hobby or entered in your circuit finals, it may be time to do a little spring-cleaning in the barn. We picked the brains of a handful of professional team ropers who ride and sell some of the best horses in the business to find out which tools of the trade are most beneficial to you at each point in your roping career. Here's a look at our panelists:
Two-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average winner Charles Pogue, 41, owned one of the greatest of all time in six-time AQHA/PRCA Head Horse of the Year Scooter. Pogue, who's heading for Jhett Johnson this spring, also knows how to spot a good ride for his wife, Londa, a #6 header. Tanner Bryson, 37, is a constant fixture in the top 20 in the world (he's heading for Brett Kennedy this spring) and has been in the rope-horse business since he could climb on one.
Cody Cowden, 36, has quietly become an outstanding horse source for West Coast jackpotters and, aside from selling the great Blue to Brent Lockett and Dufus to Trevor Brazile, is currently riding what looks like another future Horse of the Year. Cowden's aiming for a ninth NFR heeling for Kevin Stewart this spring. Shannon Frascht, 40, typically keeps about 10 head of horses on which to train, trade and stay sharp. Also a horse-show competitor, Frascht is gunning for a second straight NFR this year with header Nick Sartain.
As a novice (#3-4), you're comfortable roping from a horse, but have limited horsemanship skills that prevent control over parts of the run and make it hard for you to make adjustments, leading to inconsistency and difficulty handling steers.*
Bryson: You might be tempted to buy a young horse so you can rope on him more years, but the better approach is to find an experienced horse at least 12 years old. Even if a horse is 15 or 16, he'll get you much further in your roping career than a young horse. And if he's 12 and still sound, chances are he'll stay sound. This kind of horse is quiet in the box and has a great pattern. He knows his job, so you can get him out of the pen and count on how he'll perform. If you miscue even a well-trained younger horse, he'll start making mistakes.
Pogue: You need to find something that's already been roped on, with a lot of experience. I see guys starting out that will buy a young horse that's still learning, too. That's about the worst thing you can do. You're better off with one 11 or 12 years old that's been roped on a lot. He handles well and is quiet and knows what to do. He'll take care of you.
As an amateur (#5-6), you catch more than you miss, can turn steers competitively in a roping, and handle them well. You typically ride a conservative barrier and ride to the steer's hip before taking your throw.*
Bryson: By now, you've developed a certain feel for a horse and you know what that feel is. You should look for that. Even if you have the money for a rodeo-caliber horse, he may not be what you need to rope well. For instance, I may think I can drive a racecar, but I know that's not what I need on my highway.
A high-powered horse moves quickly and can have a tendency to throw you off-balance when he leaves the box. Remember that you got to your current level on that other solid horse and he was a determining factor in your winning. Also, it never hurts to bring someone in that you can trust and who knows a lot to help you find the horse for you.
Pogue: If you're not very aware of your left hand or don't have the basic mechanics and get on a high-powered horse, things just happen too fast for you. But as you get better at roping, you also should be better able to ride and handle your horse. The better you get, the more you can step it up as far as horses. Maybe you look for one that can run a little more.
I always look for a horse that's quiet in the box and scores good, and those are good guidelines whether you're just starting out or making a living at this. Then, it's about how fast he gets to the steer and how fast he gets out of the box. When you're stepping up your horse level, you may also need something that moves out a little harder.
As a semi-professional (#7), you can dictate the speed of the run with excellent horsemanship and rope skills. You're skilled at riding the barrier and catch most of your steers in the near third of the arena.*
Bryson: You can buy something a little greener that may not cost as much as a super-finished horse, but has potential. First, you need to look at any horse and evaluate your goals. Do you want something to go rodeo on? Then you need an older, super-finished horse, because you can't rodeo on a greener horse and win very much. Or maybe you already have a great horse and are looking for the next great one, in which case you can buy the ability but not the seasoning and spend a couple years getting him finished.
Pogue: You want to look for the best horse you can find, because the better-mounted you are at this level (or any level), the better. Shop around. You could maybe get a younger horse and train him, but it's going to take longer. I usually try to find something started good that's been roped on, that I can go turn it on and finish out the way I want. Before you can rodeo on one, you generally have to spend a little time fine-tuning or fixing things until it's right for you.
As a novice (#3-4), you're comfortable roping from a horse, but have limited horsemanship skills that prevent control on faster-moving steers and make it hard for you to make adjustments and get in time with the feet.*
Frascht: You want an old, experienced horse that's been to lots of ropings. I wouldn't let soundness be a big issue, but I'd insist on a safe horse that won't buck or misbehave in the box. Most novices want to buy more horse than what they can ride, but a higher-caliber horse might run into the bridle and stop too hard for you. An older, solid horse has a set pattern. You need that because when you're learning to rope, you need to worry about your right hand and not so much about your left.
Cowden: You need a very solid horse that's bomb-proof in the box. He gets right in there, turns around and stands. Then he stays in there to let you rope, and walks to the catch pen. And he won't hump up or buck you off. It's a love match-you might hook up with a horse that nobody could win a penny on at a rodeo, but you'll love that horse. And if the horse you want is priced at $10,000 or $15,000, don't be tempted to buy the younger horse for $5,000. He'll end up with problems and you'll end up trying to sell him.
As an amateur (#5-6), you can get in time with the steer for a positive catch ratio and have developed a pattern from one run to the next. You ride a conservative corner and usually track one several jumps but seldom completely miss a steer, focusing more on catching than dictating the speed of the run.*
Frascht: Consider your riding experience. If you're on horses every day, ranching, you might be able to get by on a little younger horse and get him working. You don't have the same advantage if you have an 8-to-5 job. At this point, you might look for something that's quicker and stops harder, and maybe now look more at age and soundness.
If you're on your way up in your roping, you'll want something you can practice a lot on and haul around. With your number, you can go to a roping and rope for two or three days straight, so realize that your horse will be standing in stalls and be tied on hard ground. This is where the soundness factor can come into play.
Cowden: The horses you're looking for are so hard to find, because everybody at this level needs the same kind of solid horse. What I like is something that really hunts the corner. You see them going down the arena, turning in and they're craving it. They're putting you right in that spot every time. The good ones try to help you all they can. And they stay with the steer until you throw, then stop.
Everybody wants a heel horse that gets on his rear end and stops hard, whether you're roping fast or going across the arena. I like that, too, but I'm more into the throw he gives me before he stops, because the important thing is getting the steer caught as fast as possible. And I like a horse to come around there and not come in too early. One step to the inside too early and you can't rope as fast. One step by, and you can't see the feet. It's a hairline difference.
As a semi-professional (#8), you ride higher and tighter horse position relative to the steer and consistently catch steers on the third or fourth jump. You also handle your slack quickly and can dally on a shorter rope.*
Frascht: You might do well on a horse that lacks just a little something for a top-level guy or, if you have the financial means, you can step out and buy that high-caliber horse. But as long as you can catch feet consistently, you should be able to take a pretty good prospect and finish him.
Maybe you can buy a practice horse that's a little young and hit the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow by finishing him and selling him for some money.
It didn't used to pay much to season heel horses, but now, as big as the demand is, there's quite a bit in finishing them (they sold one this year for $80,000). If you're into making horses as an income, you'll need to start considering conformation, color, soundness and breeding, too.
Cowden: The horse is huge. A lot of guys made the NFR once because they found the horse that totally changed their whole life, and then lost him. You can change a few little things on every horse, but so much depends on his athletic ability and style. Putting Speed Williams on a horse doesn't mean the horse will be great. But find a great horse and put Speed on him, and watch out-just look at Viper, or what I won when I had (1995 AQHA/PRCA Heel Horse of the Year) Blue.
Everybody's onto that today, though, and now that winning's down to a tenth of a second, guys are fighting over horses out here. In California, Jim Wheatley and Joe Murray have started raising Frosty Tops and Driftwood Ike-bred horses specifically for ropers. Even if they don't work out for me or Wade (Wheatley), a jackpotter is really going to like them. As far as finding horses, it's tough. And cutting horses have a tendency to be too little. It's like a hunter who wants a bird dog if he hunts birds-I want a horse that hunts cattle.
*Descriptions of roper levels are based on the widely-used United States Team Roping Championships Triad classification system.
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