do like to rope. Unlike most western riders, my
lariat is not hanging on my saddle as a decoration – it gets
used. (See “Bull-Roping” from the book Ain’t This
am not passionate about roping, however. And that
may explain why I’m not really noted for my prowess with a
rope. There are many guys (and some gals) who live to
rope. They work hard at good jobs in order to afford the
dually pickups and slant-load trailers to drive to roping
practice several nights a week and travel to competitive
ropings miles away.
haven’t earned any trophy saddles, but I can hold my own –
just a little above average I would say. And if there is a
critter that needs to be roped, I’ll rope it. Maybe we
should start with explaining why a critter needs to be
roped. (We’ll exclude, here, rodeos and contests where
critters are roped for the sake of roping - we’ll talk about
the times on a ranch where were roping for the sake of
accomplishing some task.)
On the ranch, there is a period of time in the spring when
there can be a lot of calf roping to do. (See “Ropin’” from
the book Ain’t This Romantic.)
First off is the ear-tagging. If it is done in the first
day or two, a guy can just grab them from afoot. But some
get missed for a couple of days, and must be caught from
ahorseback. Another reason for roping is that young calves
are dumb and haven’t experienced such things as bridges,
ditches, and creeks. It is often much quicker and easier to
just drop a loop on a calf and pull him the short distance
to where you want him. And of course there is the
doctoring. Scours are often seen among young calves, as
well as pneumonia and naval or joint ill.
Calves are small and easy to control, and it’s a good time
to teach your horse to “rate” an animal, and to hold them on
the end of a rope. It’s no problem for one person to throw
the calves and pull the rope off when he’s finished. It’s
the bigger stock that is the challenge.
But for sheer volume, heeling may be the most-used skill.
Although the practice is dying out, there are still ranches
where hundreds, even thousands of calves are heeled to a
branding fire. (See “Branding” from the book Ain’t This
course it’s easy to understand why a person would head and
heel a critter out on the range to doctor them. It may be
miles to the corral, and it’s hard for a sick, injured, or
lame animal to make that trip afoot. But sometimes an
animal refuses to comply with a simple request to go through
that gate, and a cowboy simply has no choice. It’s a matter
of honor. (See “On the Fight!” from the book Ain’t This
So, there are many legitimate reasons to use that rope – and
a good cowboy takes advantage of them all. But he also uses
some discretion. As I pointed out in “Bull-roping”, you
can’t make a full-grown cow go where you want her to
go. All you can do is make it so miserable for her to go
elsewhere that she chooses to go where you want. Be
careful to pick your battles! (See “Flight 932” from the
book Ain’t This Romantic.)
Now let’s talk about ropes.
The old Spanish vaqueros used rawhide lariats. I am told
that those rawhide lariats wouldn’t take the pull of a cow
hitting the end of the rope, and thus “dally” roping was
invented. The term dally comes from the Spanish “darle
vuelta” – “give the turn”. The vaqueros had open wood
saddles with broad horns where they could take several wraps
and “play” their long rawhide ropes.
When I began roping in the early 1970s, Plymouth Silk Yacht
Manila was the standard, with nylon just coming on the
scene. Manila is a natural fiber that easily absorbs or
transpires moisture. It is stronger, but it’s character
changes rapidly with the weather – stiff when wet, limp when
cold. Competitive ropers using manila kept their ropes in
burlap rope sacks that they could shelter from the weather,
and maybe add moisture when necessary.
Nylon has become the standard. It is, of course, extremely
strong, and it is relatively unaffected by weather. It is
sold in standard lengths from 30’ to 65’, and standard
diameters of 5/16” and 3/8” (scant or full). And after you
pick the size of your rope, then you have to decide on the
“lay” – from extra soft, through soft, medium, hard, and
Most lariats have three bundles of fibers that are twisted
against themselves to hold them tightly together. How
tightly they are twisted against themselves determines the
lay of the rope.
Poly ropes are another choice. I prefer poly for roping
calves as it has a little softer body that lays in better
around the smaller extremities of a calf and collapses
quicker, to prevent the calf from running through the loop
before you can pull your slack. Alternately, I’ll use a
5/16” soft lay nylon for calves. Competitive ropers go
through a lot of ropes to find the one that feels right to
them. A store that sells new ropes for $30 and more will
often have a pile of trade-ins that they will sell for
$10-12. I’ll often go through that pile to find one I like.
Now that you have a rope, it’s time to start practicing. At
the store where you bought the rope you can also purchase a
dummy calf head, or a horned steer head. It takes lots of
practice to get the feel for the size of loop you want to
throw, how to lay it on the head and jerk your slack, and
most of all, how to coil it up without a kink and build a
new loop. In the meantime, you need a saddle.
Saddles are built for all different uses. A roping saddle
has a horn that is strong enough to tie off to, and rigging
designed to take the pull of 1200 pounds of angry critter.
Cutting saddles have horns for holding onto when the horse
turns sharply. Pleasure saddles have horns to help you pull
yourself up. English saddles have no horns at all. Be sure
you have a roping saddle.
Most modern ropers use a full double rig saddle. It has a
wide front cinch set well ahead under the horn, and a wide
leather flank cinch. (Be sure that the two are hobbled
together so the back cinch doesn’t swing back and hit the
horse literally in the flanks, or you’ll be riding a bucking
horse just like in the rodeo bronc riders.
Now add the horse.
keep you out of trouble, a rope horse has to handle well.
He must be able to pivot quickly on either his fore or hind
legs to follow the movements of whatever is on the end.
(See “End of My Rope” from the book Ain’t This Romantic.
And remember the palomino in “Branding”.)
He must also learn to “rate” the animal you have set out to
rope. A good rope horse will follow the animal you are
after, with no guidance from his rider. (See “Cow Pony” from
the book Ain’t This Romantic.) When a horse sets you
up on a calf and keeps you there it’s not much different
than roping a bucket on the ground in front of you. Until
you catch him.
Montana, most everyone is a dally roper. I’ve heard that in
other parts of the country they sneer at us. Those folks
tie hard and fast to their horn – “If I catch ‘em I keep ‘em”,
they say. And that would give a fellow extra
incentive to hang on to his rope, just as rocks all around
below you give extra incentive to stay aboard a bucking
horse. It’s your choice. A safer alternative is to take a
dally, passing the tail of the rope over the top and laying
it under your thigh. That way if you part company with your
horse you free the dally so at least he isn’t hurt in
And we dally ropers have different camps also: I like
rubber hornwrap that grips my rope – “Ranch Roping” rules
The best way to learn how to rope is to just got do it. So,
pick up a rope, jump on your horse, and look for an
opportunity to get some practice!
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