Handling Steers & Helping Your Heeler

Jake Barnes on the importance of handling steers well.

[As seen in the Feb. 2022 issue of The Team Roping Journal]

There’s an art to handling a steer, just like handling a horse or your dog. To be good at it, you need to understand what you’re asking of the animal. We’ve all heard headers say, “He was loose when I caught him,” and laugh about it. That’s ridiculous, because we all want to win and it’s TEAM roping. Fastest time wins, so the object is to make it as easy as possible for your partner.

Headers who don’t care about how they handle steers don’t win as much as those who do, and will also have a lot harder time getting good partners than the guys with finesse who are trying to help their heelers.

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Each steer dictates each handle, so how gentle a steer is and how much he’s been roped factor into this equation. A lot of bad handles are on steers that run really hard, because they’re stronger and harder to control. Steers that have been roped quite a bit start to check off on their own. They know the play, and help you soften the corner.

When you draw a runner that hasn’t been roped much, you usually have to hurry to get to the horn and your horse is headed out. Steers like that tend to swing on the end of it, then run up the rope.

In most pens of steers, a third of them will be strong and run, a third will be about medium, and a third will be on the slower end. Every handle will be different, as determined by each steer’s speed and the angle he runs. Whether you rope one around the horns, neck or a half head also impacts handles.

In general, if you draw a runner and have a lot of speed built up, you need your head horse to stay hooked. You need to get your horse on his butt, and slow that steer’s momentum down for a smoother corner and so you’re not coming out of there so fast.

A steer that runs medium is typically the easiest steer to handle. You can run to your spot and stick it on him, then you don’t have to take ahold of him all that much, so you can make your move at the same time. A medium steer is also not as likely to run up the rope or get heavy.

Most of the money is won on the slow to medium steers at the open level, and the pro guys will eat you alive when they draw a slow one. But slow steers can be a challenge for lower-level ropers, because they aren’t ready to rope when they catch up so fast. Some roped-out steers also lower their heads when the header runs up on them.

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If you draw a slow steer, you need to have that rope up, so you can stick it on him almost as you’re running up on him. You’ll want to ride a little wider position, and maybe even be making your move left at the same time you’re roping him, as you’re pulling your slack. Don’t duck, but be making that move sooner to keep him moving. Because if you rope and stay in the hole on a steer like that, he’s most likely going to stall and get heavy in the corner, which is hard on your heeler.

I use the phrase “Forest Gump’s box of chocolates” when talking about handles, because they’re a lot alike—you never know what you’re going to get. I do know that if you turn out of there, and the steer’s going one way and your head horse is going another, they’re both going to get a big jerk. And your heeler’s now on defense, holding his breath and waiting out the jerk, so he can get in position to rope him.

There’s a reason heelers looking for headers put a lot of emphasis on how each header handles steers. If you’re a header and you hear yourself say, “That guy catches for everybody but me,” you need to look in the mirror. Watch the videos, and work on those handles.