The Best Teachers

Life Lessons Learned From Horses
"One of my favorite parts of roping is the horses, and the rewards of what they teach me." 
Clay O'Brien Cooper heeling
Horses are so much more than transportation, and special ones like LB become my buddies. | TRJ file photo

There are lessons to be learned about life all around us, if we listen. Golf and roping are hard games that teach you humility, patience and self-control. Both are about managing your thoughts, making a game plan and sticking to that plan. One of the things I love about golf is that it takes 18 battles to wage the war. One of my favorite parts of roping is the horses, and the rewards of what they teach me. 

READ: Applying Golf’s Positives to Roping 

When you start wanting to get good at your roping, you don’t think about the horse that much. It’s all about the roping. I went through a lot of horses early on in my career with that mentality. My plan back then was to rope 100 steers a day, and I expected my horses to take that and then be ready for all the jackpots every week, too. Treating horses as tools when I was young taught me a lot of things that were helpful as my career progressed, and I learned to be better than that.

I learned compassion, and that there is a stopping line. If you burn your horse up in the practice pen, he’s not going to be ready and reliable at the roping or rodeo.

I learned patience, especially when dealing with a younger, greener horse that doesn’t yet understand the pattern and what I’m wanting. Horses are going to self-preserve and protect themselves if we put them in bad positions. Patience gives a horse time to learn what we want from him, so sometimes we need to slow things down and evaluate what we’re asking a horse to do, and how. Don’t be quick to reprimand a horse when he doesn’t know what you want yet. 

I learned that repetition is the key to locking in consistency. If we’re repeatedly doing something in error, our horse will do it wrong. If we do it right repeatedly, he will learn to be right on the money. 

I learned that just like people, every horse has his own personality. I have several younger horses I love to ride every day, and have a different strategy for each one. Some horses are laid back, confident and trusting. Others are fearful and have anxiety issues if we mess with them too much. I evaluate each horse psychologically and deal with them as individuals. 

I learned that the traits bred into horses today are more specialized than ever before and that there will be things to deal with based on what a horse is bred to do. A cutting-bred horse is bred to be fearful and unsure of cattle. We need to help them get past that fear factor that’s bred into them. It will take time and patience to press through certain areas. 

I learned from studying horses the importance of conformation. If you’ve made a living on a horse for very long, you understand that a horse’s bone structure and feet all have a part to play. Some horses with a lot of heart will try to power through problems, but how a horse is made and built typically comes into play as a durability factor. So I learned to look at those things when buying young prospects, before putting in all the work on one that’s less likely to last. 

READ: Riding Is as Important as Roping at the Highest Level

I learned the importance of athletic ability in a horse. Some are smooth and catty with every foot in place. Others aren’t as blessed athletically. They can still be good—and often make great horses for lower-numbered ropers—but the special moves it takes to make it at the highest level are not as easy for them. 

I learned a lot about friendship from my horses. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten really attached to them. I don’t think of them as tools anymore. My horses become my friends now. They all have unique personalities, just like us, and I see them as gifts from God. 

I have horses that meet me at the gate when I have the halter. LB (the bay Clay bought from Kory Koontz) was like that. He wanted to go do something every day, and he wanted to go on the adventure and get it done with me. That connection with horses is one of the great rewards in my life that make me rich. Money in the bank doesn’t make me rich, but my connection with these horses that I enjoy every day does.

WATCH ON ROPING.COM: How To Build A Relationship with Your Horse


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