It was the “zsssssssssssssp” heard—and seen—around the Western world.
Everything was set up in 2019 for Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira to win back-to-back $100,000-per-man titles on live television at RFD-TV’s The American. It would have been Driggers’ record fourth win. The duo led the pack into the final-eight round, where they roped last. Nogueira caught both heels deep with his favorite Powerline Lite in an insanely fast, 3-second run that would have won the round. But no. His beautiful heel shot snagged his horse’s front foot, too. The perfect loop—and potential $200,000—fed completely out. No time.
We canvassed top heelers to find out why this happens and how you can prevent it.
Nogueira, the 2016 All-Around World Champion, is quick to say the pricey mishap two years ago wasn’t his horse’s fault.
“I threw too fast,” he said. “That steer was running down the arena hard and my horse thought I would track him longer. I ended up throwing too fast and it was too big a loop. I heeled him really nice, so that was disappointing. I don’t do that very often, but unfortunately that day, it happened.”
If Nogueira had that run back, he’d take one more swing. He said he was simply gaining too much on the steer when he threw.
In fact, every expert concludes that the biggest reason you rope your horse’s front foot is that you’re delivering while you’re still “on the gain” or coming to the steer faster than the steer is traveling. Headers fight a similar problem when their horse runs through their throw and they wave it off. It’s about momentum, Nogueira said.
“If you use a bigger loop, then your tip comes back too much and your horse is moving too free, that’s when it happens,” he said. “If you can put the steer and the horse at the same speed and have good separation, then everything is set up nice and you can have a good finish.”
Odds aren’t great you’re even capable of throwing as fast as Nogueira, whose horse was grabbing three gears when he delivered that day. But, regardless, four-time World Champion Allen Bach likes to advise his students to let their horse “get with the steer.” That means letting your horse lock on and get in tempo with the steer.
“You need to deliver when your horse is moving the same speed as the steer is going and never on the gain,” Bach said. “When you rope on the gain, the tip of your loop will go through a lot farther. Combine that with your horse moving forward faster than the steer, and he’ll step in it.”
Lack of separation
Two-time World Champion Walt Woodard said poor separation can result when the horse doesn’t know the shot is coming, which is what happened to Nogueira.
“Normally, you take swings across the arena and, as soon as your distance is correct, you throw,” Woodard said. “But that’s only part of the heeling scheme; a lot more goes into the definition of a good shot, especially if your distance was correct for only one fleeting moment.”
When you’re tracking a steer across the arena, he said, your horse can’t determine the difference between swing five and swing six. You know your delivery is coming because you’re about to throw, but your horse doesn’t know until the rope flies by his face. By then, it’s too late and he can’t stop his momentum.
“When your last swing comes across the steer’s back, your horse needs to slow down like a duck about to land on water,” Woodard said. “That allows the steer to be moving away from you, only at about a 1-mile-per-hour difference. So, as your rope gets there, the steer is leaving you just slightly.”
This kind of intricate timing not only gives you better separation, but gives your horse more confidence in the stop.
“You need to deliver in time with the stride of your horse, which helps the horse time its stop with you,” Bach said. “It’s that first step of ‘delivery, pull slack, dally,’ that enhances your horse’s stop.”
On the subject of your horse, Bach made another interesting point. You don’t see a lot of high-numbered heelers catch their horse’s front foot. That’s not because they’re always in perfect position, but because they’re riding horses that drag their butts. And, why do their horses stop so hard? Because they catch so many steers.
“Joseph Harrison can rope on the gain because he’s riding a former reining horse with a butt-dragging stop, so his horse will never get in that loop,” Bach said. “On great horses, you just have to have a little bit of separation.”
The horses of such consistent catchers have no choice but to keep stopping hard. Anybody who doesn’t catch eight out of 10 steers, however, is riding a horse that doesn’t have to stop as often. That horse isn’t quite as sure when or where to stop, Bach said.
What to do about it
Compounding the problem of inconsistent hits on the saddle horn are sleds that can’t be dallied on. If you rope a sled and never dally, there’s no hit to encourage your horse to stop.
At his schools, Bach says that when his heelers start catching the sled and dallying on it, every horse starts stopping better. The point is that it will help your horse and, therefore, your positioning if you dally on your sled.
“Things have evolved so much since I designed the first sled for Heel-O-Matic,” Bach said. “I remember the first timing machine we did would break apart if you dallied on it, and eat your rope up. People would have to just hold their slack up. Then, their horse would get too free and start stepping in their loop. But machines have evolved.”
Bach did a lot of tweaking to Smarty to allow heelers to dally every time. It has a special tow bar and a spring between the hind legs so there’s no hard hit on the saddle horn when you dally—just a nice, soft tug.
Aside from the intricacies of timing and benefits of dallying for prevention of the dreaded feed-out, 9.5 heeler Casey Hicks keeps it simple: Let your horse get there and then throw, instead of throwing as you get there. Former World Champ Bobby Harris boils it down to this: you should only throw as the steer moves away from you. A finished horse should help your separation by rating, but you still need to help your horse, he said.
“The simple thing is just rope as the steer leaves you, instead of as you’re gaining on him,” Harris explained.
Helping your horse back off is easier said than done (said every team roper who has ever tried to deliver while pulling back on the reins).
“Have you tried to pat your head and rub your stomach?” asked Woodard. “The reason it’s difficult is because your hands don’t want to do opposite things. When heeling, your right hand in a delivery needs to come out and around the right leg while your left hand comes back. The hands actually pass each other in your delivery. But we’re not conditioned to do that. Your hands either want to both be back by your armpit or both want to be forward. They don’t want to pass each other.”
Employing your eyeballs
And, as long as you’re fighting against your brain’s instincts while roping, try focusing on what you can see at the same time. It’s an insightful idea on how to ensure you don’t catch too many legs.
Jordan Olson, a full-time insurance salesman and 8 heeler, realized something recently when he was back heeling after heading and spending time on the softball field with his daughter.
“It sounds strange, but I really think if you’ve gotten into a spot where you catch your horse’s foot, you must have lost sight of the steer’s feet,” Olson said. “Seeing those feet is one of the things I think is most important in heeling.”
Things like position and swing are definitely factors of success, he explained, but if you don’t see the steer’s feet the entire time, none of those other things will matter.
“If you can see the feet, you won’t ride into a position where you can’t see them,” he said. “If you get too close, your brain will say, ‘You’re losing the feet, slow your horse down.’”
Mostly, he added, if you can’t see the feet, what spot are you going to ride to? If you can’t see the feet, where are you actually targeting your swing? You’re just throwing at an area and hoping to catch and not sure you even know when to let go.
“When my student ropes his horse’s foot, I’ll ask him what he could see when he threw and what he was looking at,” explained Olson. “Most of the time when that happens, or when people float their delivery pretty bad, it’s because they couldn’t see the feet. When I throw bad heel loops or miss, 90% of the time, it’s because I didn’t see the feet. When someone runs by the corner, runs into the steer, or gets too tight and has to set back and pull their horse off, they’ve lost sight of the feet. If they hadn’t lost sight of them, they wouldn’t have ridden into those positions.”
There you have it. Delivering your rope is easy, right? Just make sure you never lose sight of the heels, match your horse’s speed to the steer’s minus 1 mph, come back with your left hand as your right hand follows through, and have excellent timing with your horse that knows exactly when to stop.
Seriously, though, roping two feet means you’ve already done all the hard work. So use these tips to make sure you hear the satisfying pop of the flag dropping instead of the maddening sound of your loop feeding out. TRJ