When we’re developing our roping skills, we’re all in learning mode. That learning curve pertains to the many moving parts of being a heeler, and part of the process is drilling down and isolating every aspect of heeling. From how you ride your horse to how you swing and deliver your rope to how you cope with the countless mental aspects of roping, the best thing to do in the beginning—and at other times along the way, too—is break it down and work on all of it. But you can’t really stay in that somewhat fragmented mode when you compete. So sooner or later, we all have to force ourselves to put all the mechanical parts together, trust our training and make the play when the money’s up.

What’s tricky is that there’s added pressure when you compete. But that’s part of it, and it can be a fun challenge if you look at it that way. I like to pick specific things to work on when I practice. It might be something new I’ve been wanting to try, or some aspect of my roping I’ve been struggling with. But when I throw my name in the hat, I know I have to read the play and react in real time. So instead of thinking about all the little things I’ve been working on at home, I clear my mind when I back in the box for money and let the instincts I’ve worked hard to develop kick in and take over.

Learn from Clay O'Brien Cooper at Roping.com

When it all comes down to it, heeling is like any other sport. There’s a time to make a play on the ball, just like in tennis or ping pong, where you have to hit the ball before it bounces twice or you lose the point. In our sport’s case, we make a play on the steer. At the highest level of our game—when you’re talking about #8, #9 and #10 heelers—the players have worked hard to develop their skills, so when they compete they can make a play on the first, second or third hop around the corner. They’ve become skilled at positioning their horses and reading the handle as the run is unfolding, then reacting efficiently to close the deal.

The best heelers are so dialed into the play that they can make the shot fast after the corner, just like the highest-ranked tennis players in the world can put overmatched opponents away with superior skill, power, finesse—or whatever it takes to win.

Lower-numbered ropers are always working on their ABCs to strengthen their fundamentals, and rightly so. That’s what the big dogs did when they were beginners, too. But when you pay entry fees and back in the box for money, the run’s going to happen fast, with a lot of action packed into a few seconds.

Clay O'Brien Cooper: Keep Challenging Yourself

Working back and forth between isolating pieces of the roping puzzle and putting it all together into one fluid run is part of the process of moving up the roping ladder. Regardless of how hard that steer runs or how he’s handled, we as heelers must make the play. And when you can make the play a high percentage of the time, that’s when you step up and win.

I help a lot of young kids with their roping. Some of them are so small that they struggle with the physical aspect of being strong enough to really even swing that rope. I tell them to get it humming as fast as they can, and go for it, because I don’t want them going forever in search of perfect position and perfect handles. They won’t have the luxury of breaking it all down and demanding a perfect, controlled situation as their careers progress. I don’t want those kids to grow up to be one of those ropers who tracks steers all the way across the arena all the time, and passes up better shots for worse ones because they won’t go for it.

There’s a ditch on both sides of the road here, because throwing it on the corner no matter what and being too cautious and conservative both have downsides. But with time and experience, you can get your game so strong that you can pull off the wild shots when they’re called for, and just go catch when that’s what it takes to win. 

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