Roping’s Much-Needed Horsemanship Refocus

I’ve been watching a lot more roping lately as my son, Treston, has really gotten into jackpotting. And this will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this column regularly, but my biggest takeaway has been how much room for improvement there is in the way people ride their horses and their horsemanship.

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From a team roper’s point of view, this problem will get worse as the day goes on. If you start off the day with not much feel in the bridle or control of your horse’s body, by the time fatigue and excitement set in from the horse’s perspective, you have even less control at the end of the day. As a header, it may be harder to get your dally and handle the cow. As a heeler, your horse might be shorting you out or getting strong, whatever their tendencies are. Often, the issues people want to talk about or are more eager to learn regarding how to fix their roping are really all about their riding. The horsemanship may seem more complicated to talk about than which horn you look at or how you pull your slack, but it’s the best way to improve your game. 

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I was always inclined to watch the good horses when I was growing up, because horsemanship was such a big deal to my dad. I’m grateful for that, because that made it a big deal for me.

But even when I went to work for Jess Elrod, I thought “this guy rides good with his feet” meant that he was good at pushing one and keeping one moving through their throws, from, say, a calf roper or heeler’s point of view. But, working for Jess, I really came to understand what “good with your feet” meant because I got to ride his horses that understood all of the leg cues and had all of the buttons I’d never really understood before. 

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I would have kept riding my cheaper end horses and pointing them to the cow and roping. There are so many people who rope good, but there are so few who ride and rope good. And I don’t mean ride good as in not falling off—I mean riding to use their horses to win. Until you know the difference, you can’t see the difference. 

Now, I hear people say they want to better their horsemanship, and they’ll start with a 3- or 4-year-old and work their way from the ground up. But until you’ve ridden a good one—a really good one—and felt those cues work and learned what they mean, you’ll have a really, really hard time putting them into something. I’ll be working with a roper and tell him to put his left foot in at a specific spot, and I’ll ask, ‘Did you feel that?’ And so often they can’t feel it or understand what the cue was. Until you’ve actually felt it over and over again, you might not know what the difference is. 

You’ve only got a few choices if you want to grow this way: Go put time in somewhere with those type of horses; ride with a horseman or horsewoman who you respect, who has the types of horses that have proven they have the feel and the ability. If you happen to have the means, start with something good so you know what a finished product should feel like. On your other horses and future horses, you can try to replicate that feel. And, like I said last month, don’t be too proud to have someone who knows how to put those buttons on one ride your horse for you—that’s money well spent.

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