words from the champ

Riding Is as Important as Roping at the Highest Level
Horsemanship is the key to leveling up.
Clay O'Brien Cooper heeling on bay horse.
LB came along at a perfect time in Clay's career. | TRJ File Photo

When I started team roping, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on good horsemanship and getting your horses really broke, like they do in other disciplines such as cutting, reining and reined cow horse. I was a get-on-and-go rope guy, like just about everybody else. I could ride a horse through a tornado, but as far as knowing how to really have one broke, stopping, sliding and turning around, I didn’t start studying that part of it until I’d already made the Finals and was trying to win a world championship.

The first roper I saw spending time getting his horses really broke, bending and flexing was Mike Beers. I really admired his roping style, and tried to study him quite a bit. Jake (Barnes) and I buddied with Mike and Dee (Pickett) for several years, at the end of our run. 

WATCH: Green Horse Practice Session with Clay O’Brien Cooper on Roping.com

I started riding show horses to make extra money, and roping at the World Show. J.D. Yates was getting into that hot and heavy, and I started paying more attention to what was going on on the horsemanship side, so I could rope better. I watched different guys’ style of riding. People like the Petskas had a good feel for horses. Paul made bits, and Monty Joe mostly just uses that left rein and lets the right rein hang loose. Cory came along with a similar style to that. 

Patrick Smith learned horsemanship before he learned to rope, which has been a great asset in how he gets his horses to work. Brad Culpepper also had a style I admired. Joseph Harrison is really a crossover of horseshow style first, then came over and became successful on the rodeo side. I really like his horsemanship, and how it fits with his roping skills. It’s that next step the new generation has. 

The top ropers of today are just such better students of horsemanship. They understand that the pattern you ride with and the knowledge of what you’re doing impacts how your horse works and his longevity. If horses are broke right and use their hind ends correctly, they’re better balanced. As a result, there are more better horses now. The two worlds—horsemanship and roping—were separate when I came in, but have since really collided. 

READ MORE: Special Horses—My Big Three

The funnest part of roping for me in the last 30 years has been learning more about the horsemanship side of it. It’s a very deep subject, every horse is different and you need to figure out how to communicate what each one needs to do his job well. Jake and I work on this stuff every day. For me, it’s not as much about the roping part anymore. I’ve done that forever. It’s the horsemanship and trying to put the two of them together to where they complement each other that I crave.

Years ago, my strong suit was being able to get on just about any horse. As you get older, riding a smoother, gentler, better-broke horse makes roping more enjoyable. I knew I had an amazing horse when I bought LB from Kory (Koontz). He was so broke, had speed and balance, and could really slide and lift his shoulders up. 

LB never tried to beat you to the punch and take your throw away. The last five years of my career in pro rodeo, when I was in my 50s, I had the absolute best-suited horse at that time. LB was just easy for me to rope on, and my shot was there every time. 

READ MORE: Let’s Hear It for the Horses

Over the years, the great horses made great ropers. Leo (Camarillo) was a great roper, but Stick was just flawless and Leo had him at the perfect time at the peak of his career for probably 10 years. Denny Watkins and Banner was a sight to see. Jade’s (Corkill) had some great horses, too, as has Rich (Skelton). 

Those guys learned how to manage their horses well. They knew how to keep them working, and that relationship brought success. That’s the cool thing about roping. Your partner isn’t just the guy over there sticking and turning them for you, but also the partner underneath you. 

Everyone who ropes good has their own way of getting their horse to work. But you can’t get to the highest level without having that level of horsemanship. If you can’t control your horse’s hips, hind end and shoulders, and if he’s not broke in the bridle, the guys who know how to do all that are going to beat you all day long. TRJ

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