On July 31, 2022, Erich Rogers delivered a $14,800 head loop from two coils back at the finals of ol’ Cheyenne. But alas, reaching that far only works if the steer maintains the same path it was on at delivery.
The phrase “live by the sword, die by the sword” may have come from the Gospel of Matthew, but it certainly applies to reaching. And to the outlook of the world’s first renowned reacher, a Californian who changed the game as seven-time World Champ Jake Barnes witnessed it as a kid.
“That was unheard of, what H.P. Evetts was doing,” Barnes said. “Nobody had ever seen anything like that before.”
Evetts had grown up in the ’60s watching guys like Jack Gomez throw a long way. He started roping off a horse as a small child, with the risk-taking mentality he later used as a stuntman on films like Dances With Wolves and Wyatt Earp.
“I had a brother-in-law, Reg Jespersen, who used a big loop and reached pretty good, too,” said Evetts, who qualified for his first NFR at just 18. “He was quite an influence right here at home.”
Evetts’ parents were not impressed with what reaching did to his catch percentage, so he ran close and caught when it was required. But in that era’s five-steer and eight-steer ropings, they’d give you all your cattle. So if he was gunning for go-rounds, it was time to reach.
“I hit quite a few steers in the back of the head and ruined a horse or two in my younger days,” he recalled with a smile.
But Leo and Jerold Camarillo were intrigued enough to stick with “H.” Evetts headed for them both sometimes at enter-twice rodeos, and won the ’74 gold buckle.
“We won some rodeos by two seconds,” Evetts remembered. “Heelers like a reacher—but they don’t like it when you miss. It’s definitely a sword.”
As for delivery, he’d visualize a big weight on his tip and wait until it came around perfectly before releasing his rope. This was no right-horn-left-horn guy.
“It was like a big net, man, and I threw for both horns at once,” he recalled. “I’d get that whirl going and have that momentum in my swing like I had a rock at the tip of that loop and let ’er fly, man.”
Why did he have to imagine tip weight? Because he used Jerold’s old heel ropes. Evetts taught his horses to “flare off instead of dying in the hole” and didn’t worry much about jerking down last year’s stiff-necked bulldogging cattle at the big rodeos.
“Still, I had to learn to finesse it and slide a lot of rope,” recalled Evetts. “My pants always had black marks on them. That was the clutch.”
He still remembers one of his best reaches for Leo at Turlock that resulted in a 5.2 on a Brahman cross that nobody caught all day. The difference in 2022, he said, is that even the guys who draw the pup are reaching.
Evetts is past 70 now but still sharp on a set of horns. World Series barriers mean leaving right with the steer, he said, which eliminates the need to reach. But his love for throwing line never faded.
“I keep my horses working real good most of the time, but it’s fun to go and throw my rope a little more,” he said, then cracked, “I’m just a couple of sponsors away.”
The Blonde Bomber
If Evetts terrorized 1970s headers through nine NFR qualifications, then Doyle Gellerman took that torch to 25 total NFRs through 1997. A fellow Californian, he’d also started rodeoing—and reaching—by the tender age of 15. But unlike Evetts’ laid-back surfer vibe, Gellerman was wound so tight he literally could not swing over one’s back.
“It wasn’t anything somebody taught me,” he recalled. “When I started rodeoing, I just wanted to win so bad that I couldn’t keep it in my hand.”
Not taking an extra swing sometimes cost him money. But Gellerman gathered up a then-22-year-old Walt Woodard, whose big gate never missed, and together the pair won everything. They led the world standings into Oklahoma City in both ’78 and ’79 and lost the gold before splitting up in 1980. But, like another dominant pair who reunited in recent years, they got back together in 1981 and blew the doors off, refusing to enter second partners so they could each tie for the ’81 gold buckle.
Gellerman focused mostly on keeping his tip down and always being ready to throw on the second swing.
“I needed that tip down to throw a long ways,” he recalled. “By the time my loop got to the horns, it was pretty tight.”
He also rode horses that exploded off the corner.
“I wanted my horse giving me everything he had the moment he left,” Gellerman said. “I never could reach on a horse that wasn’t running full speed—it helped me send it out there. I see guys today just loping across the line and standing up and throwing it all the way to the end. I could never do that.”
The little bay he bought in ’76 from Frank Ferreira (the year they won the NFR average) would run so crazy-hard across the line that nobody asked to borrow him. Gellerman also had his outstanding mare Angie. Like Evetts, he used heel ropes—the stiffest he could find.
“A guy from Escalon used to order Plymouth or New England ropes in 600-foot coils and cure and tie them,” Gellerman recalled. “I’d ask him for heel ropes cut to head-rope length. If I had to rope with one of them right now, I’d just quit.”
The NFR’s 1985 move from Oklahoma City to the tiny Thomas & Mack meant a shorter scoreline. That helped Gellerman and Britt Bockius go down in history in ’95 as the first team to ever rope an NFR steer under 4 seconds. It was Speed Williams and Rich Skelton who matched their 3.8 in ’98.
A longtime pipeline inspector, Gellerman hadn’t turned any steers for money for about six years. But when his old pard’ Bockius spent last winter in Arizona with him, they roped in a few Century jackpots for a good time.
He didn’t set out to be a bomber. He just wanted to win.
“Nowadays, you have to throw fast,” Gellerman said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of times people asked me, ‘Why didn’t you take another swing?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I can’t.’”
Gotta Have Speed
The gold-buckle-winningest header of all time emerged in the ’90s with a jaw-dropping reach plus a couple of other tweaks.
“I actually studied what Doyle did to get it on them so fast at the National Finals,” said Speed Williams, the 55-year-old Hall-of-Famer and eight-time World Champ from Comanche, Texas.
Truth is, he also absorbed the way Jake Barnes ran close and got steers on a short line and the way Charles Pogue scored perfectly and was so consistent. But he focused more on riding his horse than anyone ever had. Reaching notwithstanding, Williams said, you win by the way you ride your horse across the line and handle your horse once the steer is caught.
“He changed team roping,” said Gellerman. “Now, more and more of these kids are doing what he did.”
Williams’ tweaks to the reach meant swinging earlier in the box, keeping his horse moving forward as he delivered and, ultimately, making his heeler’s job easier. His forebears watched with approval.
“Man, he knocked a start and was ready to throw from the scoreline,” Evetts said. “You know, the steer is closest to you when your horse’s chest crosses that line. If it’s a 12-foot start, that steer is 12 feet from you right there. Speed used that.”
While Evetts and Gellerman swung in the box at the Finals, it wasn’t second nature because they weren’t doing it throughout the year.
“On the west coast, everything had a long score,” said Williams, a Florida native. “Back in my country, everything had short scores in tiny buildings. Learning to throw fast was the big thing, so horses worked totally different. California’s boxes were 28 feet long, and our boxes were little 14-footers.”
For about 14 years, Williams has been coaching ropers instead of competing. But he can still pitch it a long ways, as proven by the Facebook video of him out-reaching his rope at the sudden-death WCRA rodeo in Salt Lake City.
“I threw my entire rope and dallied with fuzz,” Williams said ruefully. “My son hammered down and heeled him and I didn’t ride my horse well, so I lost my rope before I was faced. It goes against everything I teach and talk about. That was painful, to have to look at my son and say, ‘Great heel shot, buddy. Sorry.’”
It’s no coincidence two of today’s best reachers grew up in their hero’s old stomping grounds. Even more coincidental: Speed Williams started out as a heeler; Kaleb Driggers started out as a heeler; Dustin Equsquiza started out as a heeler.
Heelers love to play around on horns, and that’s what Egusquiza and Driggers started doing. Heck, there’s nothing at stake if you officially rope the other end.
“I was just a heeler, messing around at practice and started turning steers for guys just for fun,” recalled Driggers, now 32. “That evolved into Brad Culpepper asking me to go to some amateur rodeos. Back home, it was a first-or-nothing situation, because the amateur rodeos didn’t pay much unless you won first.”
He kept that philosophy as PRCA Rookie of the Year in 2009, when he and Culpepper finished 16th in the world. They made the Finals in 2011, then in ’12, Driggers won his first of three reserve world titles. For this story, it wasn’t Driggers who said he can tie two head ropes together and catch the dummy from 50 feet, or that he can stand on the hay pod of his trailer and catch his dummy on the ground. It was Gellerman who’d heard those rumors. They’re true.
But everything’s different horseback. In the early days, Driggers credits Culpepper for helping him realize he didn’t have to throw for first every time. Later, Driggers went to Williams for help. That’s where he learned to use his feet and have his horse mirror what the steer was doing. Today, the Georgia man has thrown his Classic Powerline Lite so far and so well that, not only is he the reigning World Champ, he’s won more this season (with Junior Nogueira) than any pro header—ever.
“A lot of people think that reaching on a horse will get them ducking,” Driggers said. “That was the old way of thinking. But we tie onto steers so much differently today. That horse keeps moving up under you, so it can stay stood up and pull the steer through the turn.”
That’s what Williams teaches.
“I grew up watching Speed,” said 26-year-old Egusquiza, headed now to his fifth NFR with Travis Graves. “He was obviously the king and my role model.”
But just like Driggers, he was first mentored by Culpepper. Georgia’s 52-year-old two-time NFR average winner helped the Florida kid get his own Rookie of the Year title in 2016 as they finished 18th in the world and set two arena records.
Eliminating The duck
“Dustin and Driggers were both phenomenal at reaching,” Williams said. “But both their horses ducked so bad that they could never keep them working throughout the year. I put them on the Speed Trainer. We’re talking about the most elite headers in the world—and we worked on sitting still and using our feet and left hand.”
It was Eddie Priefert who agreed to create the Speed Trainer, on which you rope from a dummy horse in a real saddle holding real reins. Williams had told him people use their left arm for balance.
“I needed to teach people to ride their horses better, because that’s the best way to rope better,” Williams explained. “From the top ropers in the world to beginners.”
On the ground, Williams said, a roper will step forward and lean. On Priefert’s Speed Trainer, you have to create the momentum with your right arm and not lean and get your horse out of position.
“That’s what I work at,” he said. “Sit up and ride your horse and reach.”
Egusquiza perfected this process so well, he’s actually been flagged out for hurling his Lone Star Helix before his horse crosses the scoreline. Asked what he thinks of the rule that has made his protégé the Rickey Green of headers, and Williams just smiles and pleads the fifth.
“I take my hat off to Dustin and Driggers,” Williams said. “They both have spent the time and took the criticism. And when I showed them what they needed to tweak, it didn’t take them two minutes to fix it.”
Coleman Proctor, who reached his way to the former fast-time record at the BFI, has also used a Speed Trainer. The native Oklahoman is headed to his seventh NFR with Logan Medlin.
“You can’t believe how many conversations I’ve had with those three guys about how to ride your horse better, face your horse better, use your feet and left hand,” Williams said. “Your rope only gets you so far.”
How far will it get them in December? According to Williams, it’ll depend on how well they ride the line and handle their horses. Because they can all reach. As for delivering from the Back 40, Egusquiza doesn’t really have an explanation for how he does what he does.
“I don’t think anybody could tell you how to throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, either, besides practice it,” he said. “You can’t run to the hip every time and learn to reach.”
Want to live and die by the sword? You’ll also need what gave Williams a “pet peeve” about roping at the back end, or what prohibited Gellerman from keeping it in his hand—the need to win first.