Whether you’re getting ready to rope at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo or Ariat World Series of Team Roping Finale, team ropers at every level are in preparation mode as they get set to migrate to Las Vegas next month. Ropers at all skill levels are down to the two-minute warning and the last chapter of the 2023 season at the Thomas & Mack Center and the South Point.
The top dogs of team roping are practicing hard every day, and trying to get their horses ready. I’ve always been one to show up totally prepared in both my roping and my horses. And make no mistake, roping big steers in that small of an arena at the Thomas & Mack is really hard on your horse.
The score is really short, but that building is small and the cattle are big and strong and fresh. And that left wall is right there. You can stick it on ’em pretty fast, but then you have to turn and come back up that wall with some momentum and get faced.
My old horse Bullwinkle was perfect for that setup. He didn’t score that great during the regular season, but that short score suited him, and he could pull the horns off of those big old cattle and face really good.
Having the horsepower you need is the biggest factor for headers, in my opinion. The conditions change, ranging from Salinas and some of the big ropings to all the short-score rodeos now. Guys having to be 3 all the time to win today makes it even tougher on your horses.
I think I won three championships on Bullwinkle. Once he was done, I spent a lot of falls searching for something to ride at the Finals. One year, I went to the USTRC Finals in Oklahoma City, and stayed three or four days after the open roping to see if I could spot a horse that might work at the Thomas & Mack. I sat around there watching people rope all day long.
I got a horse scouted out, and asked the guy if he might be interested in selling him. He said maybe after the roping. When it was over, we met up in Moriarty, New Mexico, I tried that streak-faced bay and bought him. His name was Sunny, and low and behold that’s the horse Clay (Cooper) and I set the NFR record on in 1994.
The last year I rodeoed and made the Finals (with Junior Nogueira in 2014), we set up a small arena to practice. I roped a steer, turned and came straight back up the arena. That’s when my horse fell and I got a bad head injury that kept me from roping at the NFR.
To each his own, but Clay and I never set up an NFR-sized arena to practice for it. I had a practice horse, and reached and roped a lot of steers on him. But I didn’t want my good horse ducking so bad that I’d miss, lose my rope or give Clay a bad handle. We made our run in Clay’s regular-sized arena, and we didn’t bring in bigger steers. We practiced roping fast, but wanted our good horses to go into the Finals fresh.
I think it was Speed (Williams) and Rich (Skelton) who came up with setting up a smaller arena with the exact measurements of the Thomas & Mack, and more power to them. They’re the all-time champs, and that system worked for them. Doing that is not a big deal on the heel horses, but it’s very hard on head horses. That said, I know heelers want some realistic shots on big, strong, wide-legged steers that are wild, because they’re a lot harder to heel.
Lower-numbered ropers getting ready for the Finale will face totally different conditions over at the South Point. The boxes will be really deep, and when a steer sticks his head out the end of the gate, you better be rolling. My best piece of advice for both buildings is don’t get left in the gate.
You Finale ropers will be running at more money than the NFR guys, and that can be intimidating. But try not to let the bright lights blind you, and don’t show up with a hangover just because you’re in Vegas. It’s basically a bulldogging start at both places, so get out of there and don’t be late. Being tentative at the barrier puts you in a bind. Get your game face on, and don’t get left behind. TRJ