How do you learn to win in team roping? Clay O’Brien Cooper might know a thing or two about that.
The team roping industry is abuzz at all times these days with more information and tools to take your roping to the next level. It’s all part of the evolution of our event that keeps making it tougher all the time. But in the end, the bottom line remains the same and there is still a set of things you have to master in order to succeed.
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Whether you’re heading or heeling—and rodeo or jackpot roping—you have to ride your horse right and control him through the run. That includes staying mindful at all times of the angles that are required at your end of the equation. If you’re heeling, there’s also the timing factor. It’s the key that unlocks the door. If you can’t time the steer and throw at the right time, you’re dead in the water. You also have to get the bottom of the loop on the ground and under the feet.
Roping is a little like juggling four balls at one time. You have to be able to concentrate on each one of those components—riding and controlling your horse, maintaining the correct angles, timing the steer and getting the bottom of your loop down on the ground. It’s hard to break it into segments, especially during a live run, but you have to juggle all those balls while making a run and still be able to execute.
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We use a horse as our vehicle, but it’s like any other sport in terms of making a play. The heeler’s goal is to read what the header gives him, be at the right place at the right time, and close the deal. You only have a certain amount of arena space and time to get it all done, and it all has to come together in one moment in time as the opportunity is presented to you. It’s tough to learn, but it’s so addicting because it’s such a challenge. Once you figure out the elements and learn to manage them, it’s the ultimate reward when you can achieve the goal and put it all together.
Practice is almost as fun as competing, because you’re just trying to hone, perfect and bring it all together into a reaction and a feel in a consistent way so that it’s repeatable in competition. The ball bounces different every time—the steer might run, check off, get heavy, go left, go right, the head horse may duck, your header might slide you some rope—it takes a lot of runs to develop that database in your mind, so it feels like you’ve seen it before and you know how to react to it.
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There’s a process of learning to eliminate your mistakes and bad reactions, where you figure out how to react correctly. You have to react your way through each run to learn it, and that’s the fun part. That’s why I still like to get out there and rope.
You have to be a horseman to the extent you can control your horse and his anxiety, so he’s reliable, trusts you and will do his job for you. That’s a relationship you have to build. Each new horse I get teaches me something. He’s a thinking, feeling and emotional being, just like I am. Some horses fret and worry; others get confident. They have all the same attributes as people.
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Learning how to communicate back to your horse—so he knows you’re partners in this deal and that your goals are the same—is very important. Without a good horse, you’re toast and can’t do what you’re wanting to do. That’s another cool aspect of the process. The first 10 years of my roping career—from 10 years old to about 20—I thought of the horse as my transportation. “Get out of my way and let me do my job” is what I communicated to him. But it doesn’t take long to start appreciating how much that horse means to you and your success.
My whole roping career has been a great experience. It started with my belief that God gave me a dream when I was 6-7-8 years old. Being raised in an environment of team roping, I got hooked on the fascination of it. It’s been like a fairytale life to get to do what I dreamed of as a little kid. Getting to live the life my heroes did is still a really cool blessing.