Are you ready for that next big roping? You have spent hours perfecting your swing. Your horse is light and responsive. The trailer is loaded and ready to hit the road. You can see the next buckle adorning your belt. But do you have a pregame routine to set yourself up to cash that next big check? Almost every person thrives on some degree of repetition. Predictability allows us to be prepared and feel more at ease when we face competition situations. We can feel confident that we have examined all important factors, have an appropriate plan of attack, and have shifted our focus to the present moment and away from irrelevant issues. Your horse also needs pregame priming for him to be on point. If you pull into a rodeo last minute, throw the saddle on, lope three circles, and back into the box, your horse has not had the opportunity to be settled and prepared to be as focused as you need him to be. However, giving your horse an expected warm-up routine allows him to be fully equipped to give you the best chance possible to get to the pay window. Every person’s ideal pregame routine is different, and it is important to create something that will work for your own unique considerations. To get you started, here are some areas to consider and advice from several champion ropers to help you fashion a pregame routine uniquely fitted to your needs.
Arriving at the Event
Each competitor has an ideal balance of arriving to an arena with enough time to accomplish everything without feeling rushed and not so early that he or she gets bored or anxious waiting to compete. Two-time World Champion Heeler and Two-Time WNFR Average Champion Heeler Patrick Smith does not like being late, so he gives himself as much time as possible to get to the grounds. Two-time World Champion Heeler and three-time WNFR Average Champion Heeler Kollin VonAhn always attempts to arrive one hour before a rodeo. Meanwhile, two-time WNFR Heading Qualifier and 2019 WCRA Champion Header Garrett Tonozzi aims for two hours before an event.
Taking care of their horses is first and foremost for both Tonozzi and 2017 WNFR Heeling Qualifier, 2016 BFI Champion Heeler and Two-Time CNFR Champion Heeler Wesley Thorp when they get to a rodeo. For Tonozzi, this often involves setting up portable pens and feeding and watering his horses.
2018 WNFR Average Champion Header and 2015 World Champion Header Aaron Tsinigine also highlighted the importance of knowing what will keep a person in The Zone. He knows that too much socializing before an event usually impairs his focus, so he likes to stay by himself and out of the limelight when he arrives at a rodeo.
Smith, Thorp, Tsinigine and Tonozzi all like to research their draws, looking for the times roped on that particular steer, its history and watching videos of it if they can locate any. They use this information to make a plan about the go-round.
“Everyone’s like a big family in the PRCA team roping world so they’ll share videos of steers,” Tsinigine said.
While other ropers gain confidence by researching their steers, VonAhn prefers to know little about his draw.
As a heeler, explained VonAhn, “we all know basically what a steer is going to do. He’s going to turn left. My job is to always react to what the steer is going to do. I never want to say, ‘I thought the steer was going to do something else.’ It’s not predestined; I’ve got to take the correct shot.”
Thorp specified that he factors in his draws, the arena set-up, and the number of steers run in that specific competition to create a plan of attack for the event. He selects a desired run from the catalogue of potential runs he has practiced and then visualizes the chosen scenario to prime his physical reactions associated with that run. The plan is the most important aspect of Thorp’s mental preparations.
“Sticking to the game plan and trusting that it’ll be good enough is important,” Thorp explained. “You can’t change a plan before competition because that’s where all your preparation is. Stick to what you’re good at and what your strengths are.”
Tonozzi’s approach is a balance between making a plan and being appropriately reactive. He consults with his heeler to create a plan for their go. Together with his partner, they evaluate whether letting it all hang out or a more conservative approach is warranted to do well in the round. With that in mind, he also believes that he has to respond to the situation presented because it will not always match the strategy they created.
“You’re talking about having three animals and two humans involved, so the plan doesn’t always work,” Tonozzi explained. “Sometimes you have to ad lib.”
Warming Up Your Horse
Top ropers like to tailor warm-up routines to fit a given horse, as well as maintain some degree of consistency between horses.
Horsemanship is important to VonAhn, and he takes pride in caring for his horses by doing the mundane things, like paying for overpriced shavings at a rodeo and cleaning stalls twice a day. Grooming starts the pregame process for him, and he turns his mind to focusing on the task at hand. He prefers to always groom and saddle his own horses, paying close attention as he brushes them, braids their manes, and ensures appropriate saddle fit. He also casually checks his equipment whenever he uses it as a precaution against tack malfunctions.
[READ MORE: No Wasted Motion with Wesley Thorp]
When he mounts, VonAhn focuses on making sure his horse’s muscles, tendons and ligaments are warmed up, which often includes trotting and loping until his horse shows a little sweat. He adds in specific exercises to address that particular horse’s needs, such as making sure a horse is working off the bridle instead of being pushy in the face if that is an issue. After they are worked, he allows them to walk.
“I like to walk my horse and shoot the breeze with the other guys walking their horses so my horse and I can both relax,” VonAhn said. “I want to let them cool off and come back down so there’s no extra excitement in the arena.”
Smith also likes to saddle his own horse and puts on bell boots to warm up. He starts by easing around and not getting his horse too worked up. Prior to competition, he checks his cinch, adds protective boots and secures the tie-down. Then, he blows his horse out a time or two before he rides down close to the arena early before he is up to rope. His horses become accustomed to this routine and are prepped to do their best because he gives them cues that a performance is approaching.
“I feel my horse get ramped up and ready to rope,” Smith said.
Tsinigine and Thorp both aim to get on their horses about an hour before they are up. They warm their horses up with slow exercise, including relaxed loping. Tsinigine also likes to let his horse sit for a while after the initial warm-up and then get back on 10 to 30 minutes before he is up to move his horse out and loosen it up.
Tonozzi described his current main mount as “hot blooded.” For its warm-up, he creates softness through the face, a break at the poll, and quick responses and then leaves his horse alone when it feels good and is working correctly.
“You can’t let them get away with everything in the warm-up pen and then expect them to do different in the arena,” Tonozzi explained.
When preparing your own horse, integrate exercises to physically and mentally prepare your horse to be focused and on point in the arena. If you ride a nervous horse, find ways to decrease excess energy. If you ride a more laid-back horse, find ways to amp him up a bit.
Warming Up Yourself
Having your own routine to prepare your body to perform at its highest functioning is just as important as making sure your horse is ready to roll.
Tonozzi warms himself up by doing shoulder stretches and roping the dummy.
“I rope the dummy before a perf or slack, and I’m focusing on something I’ve been working on like my approach to roping horns. It rolls over to live cattle well for me. I don’t do much more warm-up because chasing after Tinlee keeps me pretty warmed up,” Tonozzi quipped.
Tonozzi also highlighted the need for flexibility. His pregame plan has changed over the years; first, in consideration of his wife, two-time World Champion Barrel Racer Britanny Pozzi-Tonozzi, and now because their daughter, Tinlee, adds a special feature to their competition preparations.
“We have a pretty hectic pregame because we enter together and go everywhere together,” Tonozzi said with a laugh.
Even though the demands of rodeo and a toddler can change things up from go-round to go-round, Tonozzi keeps a regular routine of when he saddles, when Pozzi-Tonozzi saddles, and who is watching their daughter.
While his horse is sitting after initial warm-up, Tsinigine warms himself up by swinging two different ropes to see which one feels better to him. He also likes the feel of a warm rope in his hands, so he tries to keep them in a warm place, such as the front of the truck.
VonAhn also has a specific rope feel he prefers; typically, he wants something that has more straightness and a little backswing with no kick. He also keeps the set-up in mind when choosing his rope. For example, he prefers a rope to feel deader at rodeos with hard or clumpy ground so it stays on the dirt better. He also takes weather conditions into account and swings a few ropes until he finds the specific feel he wants for that particular event.
Unlike Tsinigine, Tonozzi or VonAhn, Thorp does not use a rope much immediately prior to competition.
“I don’t like to swing a rope a whole lot because I start to think of too many things,” Thorp explained.
All ropers also have a specific set of thoughts and mental strategies they use to ready themselves; often these approaches are integrated into physical warm-ups for themselves or while they are warming up their horses.
[READ MORE: A Finalist’s Mental Approach with Kollin VonAhn]
Smith aims to stay relaxed before a rodeo. As he swings his rope, he visualizes his planned run, focusing on his strategy and desired scenario.
“When I envision the run, I want to feel what it feels like. I see the dally. I see the flagger flag it. I see everything I need to do to execute the run, just like I was actually doing it,” Smith explained.
During his warm-up and as he readies to rope, Thorp likes to focus on one or two key points, and he selects these details based on his planned run. Some examples of what he might emphasize include riding his horse correctly, having weight in his stirrups, keeping good space between the steer and himself, riding around the corner, using his feet through the corner on the handle, balancing his weight in the saddle or picking his pocket outside of the box.
Going Into the Arena
When he backs into the box, Smith narrows his focus to a specific aspect that relates to something he has been working on in the practice pen. Some examples include thinking about his swing angle, horse position, or rope speed. Then, he allows everything else to fall into place from the priming.
“You can only think so much in three to five seconds,” Smith explained. “I just look to jumpstart the process and focus on that.”
As Tonozzi’s trip to the roping box nears, he centers his attention on the plan he created with his heeler. He also concentrates on where he wants to see his steer in relationship to the chute to judge the score, emphasizing that each rodeo is different. For example, he might want the steer’s neck rope, point of the shoulder, or its full ribcage out before he leaves the box, depending on the score length. In the back of his mind, he has already primed himself for what he was working on while roping the dummy so that automaticity can take over when the run starts.
Thorp similarly relies on his plan to help him stay focused in warm-up and when he’s up. He works hard to not let others’ runs impact his strategy. This allows him to stay level-headed and prepares his automatic reflexes to work for him in competition.
Rather than focusing on what he intends to do in his run, Tsinigine aims to let his mind stay clear. He admitted that he used to be nervous to rope and that his mind has a tendency to go too fast. To stay calm, he takes a deep breath and relaxes his body as he backs into the box so that he can maintain a sense of peacefulness and allow his reflexes to take over without overthinking his performance.
“I like to simplify team roping. I have a big enough loop to cover the steer’s horns. Well, three times bigger, so there’s no reason to miss,” Tsinigine said with a laugh. He also reminds himself, “If I have a strong steer, I’ve still got to score and still got to do my job, no matter what the steer is. I have a chance to win on anything.”
Maintaining composure and trusting reflexes are similarly important to VonAhn. He often reminds himself to stay patient to go through all of the mechanics in chronological order without getting ahead of himself. He keeps the practice pen for the location to work on conscious decisions and specifically training discipline for himself and his horses. When he shows up to a rodeo, he turns off his mind so he can react instead of roping like a robot.
To achieve that aim, VonAhn works diligently to stay in the present moment and let his training take over. He strives for complete and total awareness during the run so that he is in control of what he is doing, but is also making those moves in a reactionary and automatic way that matches what the situation warrants instead of overthinking it.
“It’s a fairly simple task. All you’ve got to do is rope a darn steer,” VonAhn said. “When the steer leaves, it’s simple to watch the cow. I let my eyes see everything clear so I can let my brain take care of it.”
Developing Your Routine
When crafting your own pregame routine, start by integrating some of the routines you already have at home. It might seem silly on the surface, but put your horse’s leg wraps on the same way in the same order every time. Saddle in the same fashion every time. These habits allow you to feel more at ease and help you to make sure you are not missing any steps when nerves may enter the picture at a competition.
Also, take time to inventory the thoughts you have during warm-up and at a performance. What thoughts help you? What thoughts hinder you? Be mindful of making a conscious effort to focus on the useful thoughts and make reminders, such as sticky notes on your tack door to help you get in this mindset. Recognize if you are someone who needs to chat with others or who needs alone time before a competition. Neither way is good or bad, but finding ways to create scenarios that benefit your natural preferences is vital.
Using a similar routine every time you step on a horse allows you to perform the same way in both practice and competition situations. You can more fully infuse the confidence developed at home into events, and it places you in the best mental and physical condition to capitalize on the go-round. Of course, allow enough flexibility that you can adjust to unforeseen circumstances. By developing and maintaining an appropriate pregame routine tailored for your own needs, you are significantly more likely to cash that next big check.
Be patient with yourself and the process. Remember that the best ropers in the business are working at it every day, too.
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.
Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Life Coach and owns Country Counseling, LLC. For more information, see her website at countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally-ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks. See more at smokensparks.com.