The View from the Other Side
A change in perspective can be humbling—and educational.

Jake Barnes has dabbled in switching ends in his team roping, working hard on his heeling. Here’s what he has learned.

I’ve dedicated my whole life to heading. I’ve heeled a little all my life, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been a better header. I started roping for a living in 1980, and my main focus has been on heading this whole time. You basically need to pick a side if you’re going to take a shot at roping at the highest level. In recent times, I decided to heel a little more, and it’s been a humbling experience. It’s a very different view from the other side. 

I’ve always enjoyed heeling on occasion, but the top guys aren’t going to sacrifice their practice runs to let you just play around and have fun. When you’re on the National Finals Rodeo track and trying to win gold buckles, it’s all business. 

Here lately, I decided to try looking at heeling from a different angle. I bought a legit heel horse of my own on the first of September—Jewel is a 15-year-old brown mare—and am taking it more seriously for the first time. I converted one of my head horses to the heeling side, too. 

READ MORE: Calling All Roping Rookies: Friendly Advice from Jake Barnes

Clay (Cooper) and I went from me heading and him heeling all the time to me spinning Clay a pen, then switching ends and him turning me two or three pens of steers. We’ve never done that before, and it’s been fun.

As much as I’ve headed, I can catch every steer. Not when I’m heeling. My timing’s not the best, and trying to rope two feet every time is a challenge. I’ve enjoyed taking it on, and I’m bearing down, because I realize that I’m the weak link on the team when I heel. 

Catching consistently is important at either end. As a header, I’ve always felt my strength was catching a lot of steers. It’s darn sure not automatic for me when I heel, and I’m trying to get good enough to win something. 

Learn from Jake Barnes on

Heeling in the practice pen for fun or heeling to tune up horses before you sell them is one thing. It’s completely different when you compete. The one thing I know about heeling is that you have to catch two feet to win. But my timing and recognizing when a steer’s going to jump is not the best. I struggle with that. 

READ MORE: Jake Barnes: Progress Can’t Be Stopped

All the best heelers explain how they do it differently. I watch a lot of film, and fundamentally know that I have to put my loop down there when the steer’s at the height of his hop. But sometimes that’s hard for me to see, and I’m a little bit late in the game to have confidence that I’m going to get it down there at the right time.

I do decent when a steer has a good pattern and doesn’t hop too fast or trot. I don’t really have a problem putting my loop down there. My trouble is knowing when to set it down there. Timing is not second nature to me, because I haven’t heeled all my life. 

On the heading side when you’re logging the steer off and are focused on the steer’s back feet, you can tell when your heeler puts his loop down there if he’s going to catch or not. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re over on that other side yourself. The run unfolds differently. The steer dictates the rhythm of the run, depending on his speed. If a steer’s hopping super fast and running up the rope, it’s hard on me when I’m heeling. 

READ MORE: What’s Your Reason for Roping?

Clay says heeling’s like jumping rope—you have to put the rope between the ground and your jump at the right time. Same way with heelers, and I’m so new to it that when I take a few days off, the first few runs back are almost like starting over. It’s like a blur—like the steer’s feet are in a blender, and I can’t figure out when to throw. I need to work my way into having better odds than a coin toss that I’m delivering my loop at the right time.

I’ve always had a great appreciation for heelers. Now that I’ve been doing it, heeling is twice as hard as heading, in my opinion. Heading at the highest level is really hard, but it’s easy to catch every time heading. It’s so hard to catch two feet every time, at least for me. And because I rope for a living, I haven’t been comfortable until really recently putting up money when I heel. 

Clay is the master at heeling, and his timing is so incredible. He can heel in his sleep. Like Tom Brady in football or Michael Jordan in basketball, Clay makes heeling look effortless. I think the game slows down for the masters in any sport. I’m just not there yet with my heeling.

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