I wasn’t yet competing when I was seven or eight years old, but my stepdad Gene O’Brien was and I always tagged along. Our whole family would go to the roping an hour up the road in Southern California, where I worked and played with the other kids. One year, we were going to a roping on Christmas Day. I got a brand new rope for Christmas, and since I usually got to use Gene’s old hand-me-downs, it was a big deal.
I just knew that rope was from Santa Claus’s sleigh, because it had red paint on the honda burner. I was so excited. We went to the roping, and I played and roped the dummy all day with that rope. Then, guess what happened? I ran off and left my brand new rope at the roping. I was heartbroken and devastated. I made a Dumbo move and let Santa down. It was back to Gene’s old worn-out ropes with baling-wire burners for me.
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When I first started competing, I was a header. There were basically two kinds of ropes back then—soft head ropes and hard heel ropes. It’s not like today, where you have all these different sizes and stiffnesses. So when Gene switched me over from heading to heeling, I learned to heel with a hard rope, because that’s what we had.
I developed my roping style by learning how to time cattle with my swing. I copied Don Beasley by swinging one swing for one jump. On live cattle, that means you have to swing fairly fast to have power on your rope. When you swing a rope hard and fast, it wants to close up if it’s soft. Using a stiff, hard rope held my loop open. I could bring it hard and fast, and it wasn’t going to collapse on me.
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How hard or soft a rope you use and prefer depends on your style. There’s also a little bit of a psychological factor to it. I can practice with a rope that doesn’t lay just right and is maybe a little softer than I like. But when I go put the money up, that rope needs to feel just right, to where it’s laying right and is just the right stiffness. The perfect-feeling rope gives me confidence, where I know without a doubt that I can catch with it. For me, competition totally changes the equation.
Years ago, the good ropers would have wet gunny sacks. They’d put their ropes under them, because the heat made the wax melt and made them feel greasy. Ropes like to be at about 65 to 70 degrees. They naturally stay truest at that temperature. When it starts getting colder than that, the nylon and the twist start to loosen up. In the heat, a rope starts to expand. Because ropes are affected by different temperatures, ropers have to be sort of strategic about how we handle and manage our ropes.
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If it’s hot, you want to keep a rope out of the sun. If it’s cold, you might want to put it in the sun to get it warmed up. There are things we can do to keep our ropes feeling like we want them to feel. Since—other than our horses—our ropes are such a huge factor in our success, the awareness and knowledge of what affects ropes is pretty darn important. Managing them to suit your style and preference on how they feel and perform is just good business.
All rope makers put a core in their ropes now, which makes them a lot more stable in different weather conditions. That core gives ropes a base and a foundation, where the old ropes were hollow. My favorite ropes these days are the Thrilla, the Swagger and the Future, all by Cactus. They all have cores and are 35 feet long. I use the hardest one they make, which is a medium hard. Old habits die hard, and that’s what works for me. Find the rope that suits your style, and get after it.