Break the Leaning Habit
"Leaning way over is not good. It cues your horse to stop, and steepens the angle on your throw."
A very young Clay O'Brien Cooper heeling for Danny Costa.
A very young Champ heeling one for Danny Costa back in the day. | Cooper Family photo

I started roping horseback as a little kid. I was cruising down the arena and throwing at ’em at 5 years old. I don’t remember people telling me what was right or wrong. I’d had a rope in my hand since I was 3, but it was a game of trial and error. Because I’d roped on the ground non-stop, 24-7, my swinging and throwing were actually pretty well developed. But when I got horseback, I started developing some bad habits.

I headed a lot when I was really young, and don’t remember leaning down to head. That makes sense, since the horns are out in front of you. But when I’d have a chance to heel one every now and then, I would really lean over to throw. And I see that a lot at my schools today, especially with little kids, older men and sometimes women.

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I think the reason for that has partly to do with loop size and the strength factor. It takes a lot more power and strength to swing a bigger loop. Naturally, kids, seniors and women—like me when I was a little kid—tend to use smaller loops, because they’re easier to swing. And it feels like leaning down there helps get that oop to its destination. But leaning is a habit best broken.

When I switched over and started mostly heeling at 12 or 13, I immediately started watching and studying the guys who were really winning a lot. The Camarillos sat right in the middle of their horses, and did not lean over much at all. Leo was really stylistic. He sat up so straight riding around that corner and threw such a pretty loop in there. His upper body looked like a statue.

Leo made such an impression on me, and trying to copy that style took me out of the habit of leaning down to throw. He was the guy winning championships, so he was the guy I wanted to watch, study and mimic. That Leo did things so correctly was such a blessing to me.

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By the time I got into my teens, I was also starting to get enough strength to swing my rope fast enough and hard enough to rope live cattle. I got out of the leaning habit, and that was a good thing.

Leaning happens when you ride to a certain spot, then stop riding. You lean to finish off your shot, because your horse is stopping. You’re leaning to maintain your position. If you sit in the middle of your horse, you have to ride him more. And when you sit straight up and your body posture is upright, you’re riding better and all the way to where you need to be. That stops the need to lean.

I also studied Allen Bach. He turned pro a year or two before me, and we became really good friends. I was living in Arizona by then, and he was over in Queen Creek at the time. So we conversed a lot and broke it down, and he let me ride his horses. When I was roping with Bret Beach and Allen was roping with Jake (Barnes), we buddied together. Allen was the first guy I really got to talk to about heeling.

I had a lot of respect for Allen, and we went on and competed together and were the best of friends through 30 years of rodeoing. Allen’s built different than me. He’s tall and long-armed, so he could really reach out and make shots away from him. He’d say I rode my horse better, but I had no choice but to use my horse more. I had to sit in the middle of my horse to ride him to the right spot where I knew I could catch.

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There are guys who bend at the waist a little more, like Allen did at times, and can make a little leaning work great. But leaning way over is not good. It cues your horse to stop, and steepens the angle on your throw. I teach people an upright posture, because leaning tends to have a negative effect on what you’re trying to do.

Extreme cases of leaning is a hard habit to break. If you’re catching two feet every time, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if leaning is causing you to not be able to deliver a loop that works every time, you might want to break a habit that’s detrimental to your goal. TRJ

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