The Quickest Way to Catch onto Roping

Eight-time PRCA world champion Speed Williams shows how you and your horse can learn to handle a loop.

A steer busts out of the gate, and two cowboys on horseback go tearing after him, ropes swinging. In seconds it’s over. One cowboy has successfully roped the steer’s head, the other has caught the back legs. Just one more equine sport out of reach of the rest of us.

Or so you think…

You may not have ready access to cattle, or a horse who can compete in a rodeo. However, with a rope, a bale of hay or straw, and a dummy steer head, you can have a lot of fun with the roping basics, both on and off your horse. Plus, with the mechanical steers available today, you can graduate to roping “steers” on the move and improve your riding skills at the same time.

Speed Williams, with eight consecutive PRCA world championships, is perhaps the top header in the world. Here’s a guy who wins hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rodeo circuit, but he delights in teaching roping to beginners, especially kids. He conducts clinics on roping throughout the country, and he recently gave us the inside scoop on how to get started-even if you have never picked up a rope and your horse has never seen a steer.

Ready to Rope

  • Starting on the ground, practice roping a dummy head on a hay bale.
  • Swing the rope over the horns, extend your hand to the right, and lay the rope over the horns.
  • Practice timed drills on the ground, roping quickly and moving your feet.
  • Use a mechanical dummy to teach you and your horse to rope at a standstill, walk, trot, and then lope.
  • Have the dummy move in a zigzag pattern so you can learn to rope a steer that moves erratically.

Start on the Ground
Much as you’d probably like to swing into the saddle and start roping, Williams recommends beginning on the ground. The easiest way to start is to put a roping dummy head onto a bale of hay or straw. These are often made of plastic or plastic with real horns. One style, the Turn Loose Head, will flip up with a tug on the rope after you’ve caught the horns, releasing the rope. That way you don’t have to walk up or dismount to take the rope off of the horns before trying again.

“I know some very good horsemen who, when they get a rope in their hand, don’t pay attention to their horse,” Williams says. “You want to practice drills on the ground, building muscle memory, so that your body knows what to do automatically.”

Williams stresses the im- portance of safety, which a good foundation will give you, which is why he puts first things first. And, of course, the first thing you’ll need is a rope.

“Get a rope that you can swing and that feels good to you,” Williams says. “Everybody has their own feel for a rope. Usually, a header uses a softer rope, and a heeler uses a stiffer rope.”

For our purposes here, you’ll want to find one that is made for heading, along with a roping glove for your right hand.

You’ll “build” your rope by starting at the tail. (See roping terms glossary on page 55.) When standing, let the tail barely touch the ground on your left. Then make several coils of rope to hold in your left hand. Take the honda (the eyelet at the end of the rope) in your right hand and feed the rope through the honda to make the loop, which you’ll use to rope the steer.

“I like to hold my honda straight, like the sights on a rifle,” Williams says. “Some people turn it to the left, others to the right. It’s a personal preference.”

Williams also advises that you have the strand of rope that runs through the honda on the inside of your hand. “That way, when your thumb is locked down on the rope,” he says, “you have this strand secure. It can’t get away from you.”

The Swing
Now, standing behind the bale of hay with the dummy head on it, practice swinging the rope over your head, with the coils in your left hand and your right hand holding onto the bottom of the loop. Williams advises learning to rope while standing fairly close to the end of the hay bale. Learning to rope close is safer because you’ll have less rope out there for your horse to get caught in when you’re ready to mount up.

“The basic way to swing your rope and to make your rope go around your head is to have the tip of your rope go over the top of the horns as smooth as you can,” Williams says.

Williams recommends that you try to swing the rope as smoothly as possible, with the tip of the loop-the one furthest from your body-swinging over the top of the horns. Your goal is to swing the rope without changing the angle all the time. If you loosen up your right hand, you can keep the loop flat. The loop should swing over your head and then over the tip of the horns. You’re not trying for a loop that’s parallel to the ground because the horns sit lower than you stand (and even lower when you’re on your horse). Rather, it’s more like a 45-degree angle so that the loop is close to your head and close to the horns.

When the angle is even and the rope is swinging over the horns, you can simply extend your hand to the right and lay the rope onto the horns. Don’t try to draw the loop tight at this point. Just practice laying the rope onto the horns again and again.

“If you swing too high to the right, you’ll miss the right horn,” Williams says. “If your hand stops, you’ll miss the left horn. You need to follow through, bringing your right hand across your body.”

Try to do this as smoothly as possible and with only two to four swings before you lay the rope onto the horns. It’s best to have a somewhat smaller loop so that you can more easily control the rope. Start with a loop about the size of a Hula-Hoop. The more times you swing, the more rope will play out. If you throw after just a few swings, you’ll be able to keep that loop small.

“A lot of people will tell you to throw with your thumb down,” Williams says. “But if you do and you’re off just a little bit, you’ll split the horns. This way, by moving from right to left, there is more margin for error, which allows for the cow to move to the left or the right.”

Next, practice pulling the slack and tightening the rope on the horns. This is the first step in dallying. Dallying simply means wrapping the rope around the saddle horn.

Keep your left hand in front of your body when you throw your rope. This way your slack will be right in front of you. If you move your hand to the left as you throw, your right hand will not be able to find the slack.

After you throw the rope onto the horns, reach for the slack with your right hand, using your index finger and your thumb. Then move your right arm past your body on the right side, pulling the slack, thus tightening the rope on the horns. When you’re on your horse, you’ll continue the movement, bringing that slack around the saddle horn and dallying.

Three Drills
Before you bring your horse into the picture, Williams recommends three ground drills that will teach you to rope consistently, even when circumstances and pressures change.

As you stand behind the dummy, have a friend say “go.” At that moment, start to rope, being sure to lay the rope onto the horns with your second swing. Williams recommends making these drills into a contest with another person if you can, which will start to simulate the pressure of a roping competition.

After you can rope the dummy consistently on the second swing, repeat the same drill, with your friend saying “go,” except this time follow through and pull your slack.

Now you’re ready for the third and toughest drill. Take a step farther back from the dummy. Stand with your feet together. This time when your friend says “go,” take a step forward as you swing your rope. Again, rope in two swings and pull the slack.

By moving your feet while you swing the rope, you’re teaching yourself to do more than one thing at once. That trick will come in handy when you’re on your horse trying to ride and rope at the same time.

Bring in Your Horse
Now you can start working with your horse. Make sure he is used to being around whatever type of dummy you’ll be using, whether it’s the hay bale or one of the mechanical dummies. The mechanical dummies move, either by themselves as an all-in-one motorized machine or by being pulled with a four-wheeler.

If Williams has a horse that doesn’t like the mechanical dummy, he will leave it near the horse’s feed trough or by his stall, where he has to walk by it. Eventually, the horse will get used to seeing it all the time and it won’t bother him.

Roping Terms

Box: The three-sided pen from where the roper and horse must start. The header is on the steer’s left side, and the heeler is on the steer’s right side.
Chute: The apparatus that contains and releases the steer, with the header’s and heeler’s boxes on either side.
Coils: The loops in the middle of the rope that you hold in your left hand.
Dally: To wrap the rope around your saddle horn after you have roped the steer.
Dally wraps: Strips of rubber put onto the saddle horn to prevent the rope from slipping.

Dummy: One of many artificial steers, from a roping dummy head that can be placed on a bale of hay to mechanical dummies that mimic the entire steer and can be pulled by a four-wheeler or run on their own.
Face: Turning the head horse to face the steer after the header and heeler have roped it and dallied.
Honda (or hondo): The eyelet or ring at the end of the rope that the rope is run through to make the loop.
Loop: The part of the rope that you swing to catch the steer.
Scoring: Your horse waiting in the box until you release him to chase the steer, essentially giving the steer a head start.
Spoke: The distance between your honda and your right hand when a loop is made.
Tail: The end of the rope that hangs at your side or by the side of your horse.

Take some time to accustom your horse to a rope swinging over him as well. If you’ve sacked out your horse thoroughly with John Lyons’ methods, this probably won’t take very long. But you’ll want to make sure your horse is thoroughly acquainted with the sound and feel of the rope touching him absolutely everywhere, so there’s no risk of catching him by surprise.

First you’ll have to learn to rope from on top of your horse at a standstill, then a walk and then a trot before trying this at a lope. Walk your horse up to the dummy, stop him in the same position you were when you first roped on the ground, and then swing the rope over your head.

Again, you’re trying to swing the rope smoothly at a consistent angle, with the tip of the rope directly over the horns. Open your right hand, lay the rope across the horns, and pull in your slack.

After you can consistently rope the horns successfully, you will add dallying and moving your horse to your left, away from the dummy. Once you’ve dallied, you and your horse will be tied to the dummy, so your foundation work will help keep the two of you safe. The dummies that flip up with a tug of the rope are also useful in case your horse objects to this new weight at the end of the rope.

Wrap the saddle horn with strips of rubber, which will prevent the rope from slipping when you have a steer’s weight on the end. Some people use old strips of inner tubes, but Williams uses dally wraps. He notches them with a knife for better traction, and he suggests extending the wraps all the way to the top of the saddle horn in case you dally there.

This time after you rope the horns and pull the slack, dally the rope around the horn. This is a part of roping you’ll want to practice because when a real steer hits the end of the rope, pulling it taut, the pressure can be dangerous.

You don’t want to get a finger or thumb caught in the rope coils. That has happened to even the top ropers. Seven-time PRCA world champion roper Jake Barnes lost a thumb during last year’s National Finals Rodeo when a coil from his left hand wrapped around his right thumb.

After you dally, ask your horse to step away from the dummy to the left, almost in a sidepass.

“Make your horse keep his head back over to the dummy a little,” Williams says.

As you and your horse walk away, you want your horse to move at an angle of about 10 or 15 degrees, according to Williams. Think of it as a clock in your arena. If the dummy is traveling straight down your arena at 12 o’clock, when you move to the left, head toward 8 o’clock.

It’s important to think of the 8 o’clock position as it relates to the arena, not to the direction that the steer ultimately goes. You’re trying to position the steer at the proper place in the arena so that he’s in a good position for your heeler.

Once the horse has moved away from the dummy, ask him to turn and face it.

“You want to use your right leg to make him move his butt around,” Williams says.

Speed Williams: A Roper Since Birth

Speed Williams was born into a family of ropers and has been interested in the sport practically from the time he could walk.

“As a kid I’d rope the goats at home,” he said. “As soon as I came home from school, those goats would go run and hide. They were smart.”

Williams has gone on to win a record eight consecutive world titles in team roping at the National Finals Rodeo with heeling partner Rich Skelton. He is one of the few people to have qualified for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in both heading and heeling, and has earned well over $1.5 million in PRCA events. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. Beginning with the 2006 rodeo season, Williams will be partnering with Clay O’Brien Cooper.

He will also continue to hold roping clinics throughout the country, specializing in teaching kids to rope. Williams’ website ( will soon have free instructional video clips and training tips.

Roping a Moving Target
To progress to the next step, you’re probably going to need a mechanical dummy that can move. The back legs on these dummies also move so that a heeler can practice on them as well.

Williams particularly likes the mechanical steers now on the market. “The mechanicals can go at a very slow speed and can be consistent,” he says. “That limits the risk of injury to you and your horse. You can also re-create the same run so that you can fix your mistakes. Steers are unpredictable, so you don’t get the repetition that you need.”

In his own practice arena, Williams has someone tow the mechanical dummy with a four-wheeler. The driver can control the speed and the direction. However, mechanical dummies are available that can move on their own.

At first, have the driver tow the dummy slowly in a straight line, so that you can practice at the walk. As you improve, he can increase the speed so that you can rope at a trot and then a lope.

While you and your horse are learning these skills, the time you spent on the ground learning to rope close to the dummy will come in handy. The less time you take to rope the steer, the closer you will be to it without a lot of rope between your horse and the steer. Especially while you’re learning, if you let out a lot of rope, you and your horse can get tangled up in it.

This is another advantage of a mechanical steer that can be towed. The driver can watch your progress and stop at any point, keeping you, your fingers and thumbs, and your horse safe. A live steer won’t be that considerate.

Eventually, ask the driver to zigzag the mechanical steer. You and your horse will have to follow the erratic pattern, which will simulate what a real steer will do.

Be sure to include having the dummy cut over to the left in front of your horse so that your horse learns to maneuver in that direction and isn’t intimidated by a steer crossing in front of him.

Depending on how far you want to take it, you can next put your horse at the end of the arena and start him out of an imaginary box. Or, if you have access to a roping arena, you can teach your horse to move out of an actual roping box while the driver pulls the mechanical steer around as if it were coming out of a chute.

“You have to teach your horse to leave the box when you ask,” Williams says, “not when the gate bangs.”

To simulate that, called “scoring,” have the driver pull the mechanical steer around, but don’t let your horse follow it. Make sure your horse listens for your signal to chase the steer, and vary when you ask him.

If you decide that you want to step it up to a live steer, you can find facilities that hold roping practices, often weekly. They usually charge a fee to help cover the cost of the cattle. Of course, getting your horse used to a real steer is going to be a whole series of practice sessions. Some horses adapt quickly to the sights, sounds, smells and behavior of cattle; others need more time and exposure to get used to working around livestock with confidence.

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