In my opinion, scoring is the hardest part of roping. And that statement stands regardless of what level roper you are.
For the most part, scores have gotten shorter in recent times. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was pretty standard to see scores set out there at two foot over (the length of) the box, which you never see anymore. That typically made the start about tail to the end of the gate. When the score was even, which was the most common, the score was tail to the pin. If the score was two foot under, which we rarely saw, it was hip to the pin.
The new generation of ropers sees the start a little differently. They watch everything out the end of the gate. So if, for example, the score is even, they’re seeing front leg out the end of the gate. That’s today’s equivalent to us seeing tail to the pin back in our day when it was even. We said, “tail to the pin.” Guys today just say, “front leg.”
Priefert makes most of the chutes used at rodeos now, and there’s a six-inch plate that’s just behind where the pin’s always been in the past. So most of the time now, the start is “tail to the plate.” That’s how guys from my era would describe the same scenario today’s rodeo ropers would call “front leg” now.
Regardless of what the score is, people are always trying to get better at scoring. It’s just part of the fine-tuning that can be the difference between good and great. Most starts have gotten so fast. We just went to the rodeo at Logandale (Nevada), where the scoreline was a foot over the length of the box. The start was about tail to the back of that plate. That happens so fast, and is so much quicker than it used to be.
As roping has evolved, everyone recognizes that cattle have gotten smaller and scores keep getting shorter. Times keep getting faster, and that’s also because the ropers are so much better than ever before and there are so many of them now.
I’ve always said that how well you score is critical to your level of success at every level of the game, and that you’re basically going to score as well as your horse scores. A lot of things make that horse want to leave. It’s a race, and how good your horse’s concentration is is a major factor, as is what kind of hands you have as a horseman. You need to work to develop the confidence to keep your hand steady and not pull on your horse’s head when you nod.
Your horse is going to want to leave when the gates bang. If you pull as you nod, that’s just a signal to go. Then the gates bang, and the steer and heeler leave. Your horse can recognize all of those signals. How much confidence you have in your horse to withstand all of those cues to go affects your scoring. You will score your best when you have confidence in your horse to wait and find out from you when you want to leave, and he leaves off of your hand.
The vast majority of ropers nowadays are World Series ropers. They’ve lengthened the box and put the electric eye right out in front of the chute, so the score is really short and you can basically nod and ride. You almost have to jump the gun to break the barrier, and you need to be gone just after that steer wiggles or you’re going to be late.
The World Series setup suits most ropers, because there’s really no need for hesitation. But even with that short of a score, there’s still an art to scoring and getting your best possible start. You want your horse to start running hard and flat straight out of there. If your horse will stand there for a split second to let that steer move, you can get a good, rolling start.
Scoring is so important that I’d rather have a horse that scores great and can’t run as hard than a horse that can fly but won’t score. You’re always second-guessing the start on a horse that won’t score, and that’s just too frustrating and unreliable. If you watch guys who rope really well, you’ll notice they score a lot of steers in the practice pen. Scoring helps their horses relax, and more than anything reminds them that they need to leave off of their rider’s hand and that the roper decides when it’s time to go.