When you’re first learning to rope, your main focus is catching the steer and that’s all about your roping hand. But to be a complete roper, you need to have horsemanship skills in addition to roping talent. There’s riding and there’s roping, so you better be working on both and remembering that it takes two hands to team rope if you want to climb the competitive ladder.
When I was a young man, I roped really aggressively and my horses always wanted to duck and get quick. By throwing so fast and reaching a lot, I was cuing them to drop that left shoulder and they were always trying to beat me. What made matters worse, back in the day most of us only had one horse. He was a practice horse, a jackpot horse and a rodeo horse all in one.
When I was going to college and amateur rodeos, the ropings were mostly three-headers and they were enter-up. The money was split 60-40, with 60 percent of it being paid in the average and 40 percent for the first round. I was always trying to win the first round, because I wanted to make some money right off the bat before going after that average money also. Naturally, that gunslinger mentality made my horses plenty quick. Back in those days, I had no horsemanship skills and never roped for my horse. I had one speed—wide open—and that went for practice and competition.
I was trying to beat everybody with my rope. But it was frying my horses. Then a friend of mine told me, “Jake, you’ve got to learn to use your left hand better.” I had to learn how to keep riding until after I got my dally, so I started holding my horses in with my left hand and squeezing with my left leg.
So many of the rodeos now are one-headers, and those horses are getting out of town. Some guys don’t even get their slack things are happening so fast. But in averages—especially at lower-numbered ropings, which pay like slot machines these days—we have to use both hands.
If you think about it, the left hand does most of the work. It scores, rates, rides into position, rates that horse down, handles the steer and helps that horse face. Your left hand starts and finishes the run, and does all but swing that rope, rope that steer, get your slack and dally during every run.
When you’re learning to rope and all you’re thinking about is the catch, it can be really hard on your horse if you’re also a novice horseman. Experience will teach you the importance of using both hands, and also both feet when you rope and ride.
You basically need to have two brains to be a successful roper—one that’s thinking about roping and one that’s thinking about riding. And you’ve got to train your mind to think about both simultaneously. Your right hand needs to hit the bull’s-eye with the loop and get a dally. But your right hand needs your left hand, because there’s a lot more to that right hand’s job than swinging that rope.
The better the horse you have, the easier on both hands, by the way. At all levels, it’s so much easier to focus on your roping when you’re riding a good horse. But remember, if you aren’t a horseman who knows how to keep one tuned up, you’ll wreck even a good one if you only rope for yourself.
Use that left hand in practice to fine-tune your horse and keep him listening, so he stays on point and is dialed in and ready when you go compete. I feel like I can stay sharp on my roping on the dummy. The practice pen’s mostly for my horse, which means my left hand is extra important there.
I prefer to practice on medium to slow cattle, because they’re best for my horse and I want him to chill in the practice pen. Roping fast cattle—and making too many runs—ruins horses. Their blood gets to boiling, and they start going downhill.
Always remember there’s a reason you have two hands. And your two feet are just as important as your two hands. They’re all tools for your roping and your riding, so don’t waste them and use them wisely.