Learning Distance: Patrick Smith Helps Young Heelers
Patrick Smith says the number-one problem heelers encounter is their distance through the corner.

I think the number-one problem with heelers, and the hardest thing for us to keep doing, is keeping distance through the corner. It takes a lot of discipline, especially in situations where you have to be fast. It’s hard to not get yourself in a panic and get caught too tight into the corner. If you can ride that corner correctly, you’re always going to be more consistent and faster. 

Ropers young and old don’t realize how much importance there is in riding the corner correctly for you and your horse—it’s a chain reaction that affects everything from your delivery to your dally and everything in between. 

Eyes on the Prize

It seems like the more that roping evolves, and the more we learn, the more heelers are realizing the importance of never losing sight of the feet. The old-school way of the heel horse turning in, getting to the inside and stopping, then roping two feet is dead and gone as far as being successful. It’s about riding your horse into the corner correctly. All of that starts with your positioning and your distance. 

How much?

A good rule of thumb is to have your horse’s head even with the steer’s hip or flank going down the arena before the corner. Then, width wise, anywhere from eight to ten feet. When you have a pocket and that distance, and you can see the target all the way through the corner, your focus and your timing are so much better. You’re always ahead of the game when you can see everything coming before it gets there by watching the feet. If you’re too tight, you’re behind the 8-ball and you can’t catch up. It becomes a guessing game rather than precision and discipline.


If you can’t see the feet the whole way through the corner, you’ve started your corner too early. If you’re not used to roping that way, you’ll always feel late. Every horse and every roper is different, but if you can’t see the feet through the corner, then you’re riding too tight. 

Helping Your Horse

Now, the plus for the horse: It makes your horse’s job that much easier when they don’t have to stop in the corner to keep from running over the steer, then speed back up, then stop again. They get to keep a nice momentum through the corner, going the same speed as the steer. It’s a lot easier for him to judge when he can see everything out in front. 

Horsemanship Challenge

If your horse isn’t used to keeping his distance, you’ll need to do some maintenance on your horsemanship. One thing I do is I stop my horse in the corner because they’re creatures of habit. A heel horse wants to turn in, just like a head horse wants to duck. They get to where they’re anticipating that corner. I spend time stopping my horse and keeping him in my hand, letting him know that just because that steer is being turned doesn’t mean it’s time to go. I have control of when it’s time to go in my reins. It’s not something you do all the time, and you don’t want to go to jerking and get in a fight. But your horse needs to be paying attention to the bridle and have respect for the bridle. When you have control, you can stop your horse in the corner when the header turns the steer. Until you can have that control, you can’t keep your distance and timing in the corner. When you practice, you have to practice for yourself, but you have to practice for your horse, too. 

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