What Makes a Winner: Heeler’s Edition
In the lower divisions, what specific skills separate the consistent winners from the rest of the pack? We surveyed the industry’s leaders and top producers for their seasoned perspectives. 

“They must have his number wrong.” 

“It’s like her headers pull them into her loop.” 

“How many Legend ropings can one guy win in a year?”

Last month, we tapped team roping experts to find out exactly why some lower-numbered headers keep winning while others can’t seem to catch a break. This month, we called up some heeling experts to tell us what the best lower-numbered ropers on the back side do so differently than their lesser-winning counterparts. 

2022 NTRL Finals #7 Winners Brian Gleason and Troy Wismer. Andersen/C Bar C Photography

Denny Gentry

Founder, USTRC, WSTR & Riata Buckle

The secret: Patience with angles and position.  

Why? Unlike low number headers, low number heelers will not get high number headers to rope. So they have to find a way to be consistent in the bottom divisions. That is tough because the majority just don’t have the time to practice or good enough one-on-one instruction on the mechanics of the heel loop. Beginner headers will go right to left hooking horns and beginner heelers try the same thing with right to left scoop attempt. The consistent winners have their angles and placement figured out. The older ropers that place more have a stronger sense of position and will be more patient in getting that position before roping. There are quite a few lower number heelers who have a fairly low win-to-enter ratio, but according to Global their times to win are usually pretty long. That indicates they track a lot farther. 

Martin Lucero

16-time NFR heeler, Roping.com Coach

The secret: Not being content with their skill set. 

Why? I’ve had guys progress from 4s to 7s in the course of a couple years, but they were never really content with being a 4. They wanted to be the best 4. So then they were 4.5s. They bought into the discipline of horsemanship and fundamentals. Then they wanted to be the best 4.5, so they were a 5 before long. 
With that, they get good at being okay winning third. They don’t beat themselves by trying to be first every time. They give themselves a chance, but team roping isn’t a winner-take-all event. You can keep your horses working by trying to win third every time, and you can maintain your confidence with that consistency. The lower-numbered ropers who win a lot have confidence—that’s part of the battle, even ProRodeoing. Everybody wants to win, but the guys who do the best expect to win and they truly believe it. 

Cade Passig

BFI Champion Heeler, Announcer & Flagger, Mathews Land & Cattle

The secret: Partner consistency and executing fundamentals.

Why? The guys that you see win more consistently rope with the same header more times than not. Whether it’s a guy you only rope with at the ropings or maybe your buddy that you rope with at the house, sticking it out with a partner that you like roping with will help you in being a better team and being comfortable roping together. And you’ll know what your header will do in situations when your money is up. 
Also, whether you’re just beginning or you’ve been roping for a while, missing and catching comes down to executing fundamentals or making fundamental mistakes. The guys that win more, catch more steers, which comes from fundamentals. Things like position and separation, and swing angles and delivery. So being disciplined to stay consistent with your fundamentals will eventually build good muscle memory, and from that you’ll start seeing improvement.

Patrick Smith

Two-time World Champion Heeler, Roping.com Coach

The secret: Maintain their pocket. 

Why? They don’t cut the corner and they keep their distance. That’s a domino effect at every level. The momentum of the run, and the visual aspect of the game, all link together in the corner and pocket. It’s literally everything in the momentum of your horse, not having to pull with your left hand, being able to keep your tip to your target. So many mistakes start at the pocket in the corner. It’s like setting yourself up shooting pool. Lots of people can make the ball in the pocket, but to make one with another one is where the challenge is. 

Kory Koontz

22-time NFR qualifier, BFI Champion Heeler

The secret: Understanding how to win, and understanding the variables in each situation. 

Why? There are low-numbered guys who won’t keep their number low very long. And then there’s the low numbers who were higher, but they’re older and they’ve got their number down just because they’re not going as much and they’re not as capable as they once were, but they did know how to win at one time. There are so many reasons people have a lower number. But they understood winning more. There are a lot of different things that could be a reason why their number is lower, but at one time they were way more capable than most 4s and 5s but they know how to win. And what do I mean by understanding how to win? Not being scared, not getting nervous and understanding how to do their job.
And ropers who win at every level also understand how they have to execute based on the variables. If you’re too far, and your partner whips him, then you’re behind. If you’re close, and your partner doesn’t pull him, you’re on top of the steer. There are a million different things that work against you or for you that create a good or bad situation. In the #8.5, it can fall apart in a moment’s time. It’s hard to say it’s a good spot or a bad spot to ride to. That’s part of what you teach at a school. Try to be aware of who you’re roping with, of what the steers do, what size of arena you’re in. Being aware of all of these variables that are good or bad that will help you win or cause you not to win. Those are the same things the best guys in the world do to put themselves into situations to be successful. 

Cesar de la Cruz

Nine-time NFR heeler

The secret: Riding better horses. 

Why? I’ve noticed since I’m helping with lower-numbered ropings every week, the guys who ride the better horses have the most success. It’s easier to place an amateur rope horse with an amateur rider—they can win a lot. That’s usually a 10- to 20-year-old horse that will let them pull, kick and do the same thing. The lower-numbered guys have problems when they’re on a younger horse and don’t ride them consistently. The guys winning the most have good horses and match their styles really well. That’s in every event in rodeo, and really at every level. But you can see when there’s an amateur rider on a fire-breathing dragon in the barrel racing, and it’s the same thing in the team roping and people don’t realize that. You have to match the rider with the horse. When somebody is trying a horse, if they have issues when they try it, they’ll have even worse issues a month later. 

John Johnson

Producer, JX2 Productions

The secret: Using your practice equipment. 

Why? All across the country, and especially where I’m from back east, the lower number ropers work for a living and don’t get to practice enough. They’re businessmen or businesswomen, or older folks. The Heel-O-Matics are so good, that after work, you can get a realistic look at what cattle will be like and swing your ropes and leg your horses up. The business, working-class ropers need those kinds of tools because their time is very limited. Plus, they are aware that there’s so much education out there, that you can get videos and instruction and podcasts and read The Team Roping Journal, and take all of that knowledge and go roping. I’m telling you, most of these heelers have used this machine to the max. And they’ve used the instructional videos, podcasts and the magazine to the max. The Heel-O-Matic being as close as you can get to live cattle—I hear that and see that a lot. These guys don’t have time to get out 20 steers and wrap and unwrap. All you need is someone to drive a 4-wheeler and get great practice and cash in on it. 

Bobby Harris

Hall of Fame Heeler

The secret: A better understanding of their abilities. 

Why? That’s as important as anything—knowing what you can and can’t do and staying within that realm. So many will try something they can’t do or aren’t ready to do. The guys who stay within their boundaries are hard to beat. Their horse works for them that way, and they know how to compete and win that way.

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