I was on my own and making a living roping when I was 16. So I naturally started pouring myself into practicing hard to hone my skills at an early age. Repetition of runs is what allows us to create a strong foundation of fundamentals that we then build on with our own personal roping style. I learned a long time ago that the steers you practice on are actually very important.
Before I had my own arena and practice steers, there were people who let me come to their places to practice. At that stage of the game, I was so eager to just make runs that I wasn’t really thinking about the type of cattle I was getting to rope. I was just grateful to have somewhere to go. I was, and still am, close to a horse trader (Tommy Cox) who kept me in horses a lot of my career. I ran a lot of steers in his arena over the years, too.
In the early going of my career—when I was jackpotting and amateur rodeoing—I wasn’t a very good horseman. I basically thought of my horses as tools and transportation. Time, maturity and burning through a lot of horses taught me that I was wrong to think that way. I figured out that my horse was my other partner, and that working on my horsemanship had a positive impact on my roping. It also helped my horses last longer.
When I started roping with Jake (Barnes), we roped at my arena and Jake provided the steers. We were making 80-100 runs a day, and it took a lot of horses to get that done. But it paid off. And besides improving my roping, I learned that as I improved my horsemanship my horses worked better and kept working.
That’s when the tide started to turn and the light went on about the importance of roping the right kind of cattle. It’s also when I started to realize that I needed to have practice horses and competition horses, and that it was important to be strategic with practice in terms of number of runs and the kind of runs we were making. What kind of steers we practice on matters.
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It’s fun to rope every kind of steer—slow, medium and fast. But you can’t rope the fast ones all the time unless you have the means to keep replacing horses. Horses can’t take a lot of high-speed runs over and over. And under those conditions, your good horses not only don’t get better, but start to get worse.
When I roped with Chad (Masters), and spent the winter of 2014 with him in Texas, we had 15 steers that were fresh, waspy and fast. We also had a medium herd and a slow pen. We strategically ran steers on the horses that suited the plan. I ran the fresher steers on my good horses, but we only roped seven or eight steers on each horse, so it wasn’t a lot of work. It was just enough each day to keep them sharp and doing things correctly, but not asking them to make too many fast-and-furious runs.
Chad had lots of younger horses, so we roped the slower, older herd on them, with me riding my young horse and my practice horse. He also ran a few of those slower steers on his good horses, so he could score cattle out there a little and not boil the ground and ask those horses for their life every time.
[READ MORE: Mastering Fundamentals with Clay O'Brien Cooper]
My favorite practice steer is just a medium-slow steer that’s honest. You can let a steer like that out a little, then go through the run slowly and methodically. We do things pretty fast in competition, so it’s good to slow it down at home and do things correctly. Letting horses relax is good for them, and keeps their brains from being overcooked. You need to make runs on fast cattle so you can handle that in competition. You also need a slower set of steers to keep your horses working.