Learning by Observation with Clay O'Brien Cooper

Learning team roping is best done by watching the best in the game.

I’ve learned so much by always watching other guys I look up to and admire. I still learn a lot that way. If you’re looking to learn and gain more knowledge, if you just sit and watch you’ll pick up things left and right?things you’ve never noticed before and things you can try. I grew up watching the Camarillos, Walt Woodard and all the guys who were in the generation before me. I never really had anybody teach me how to rope, I just learned by watching.


A lot of people say watching team roping is like watching paint dry. But I could watch the toughest ropers in the world for hours and hours. I’m always studying what they do, and I have such an appreciation for what they do.

There are so many different aspects to roping. There’s the horsemanship side, and the different styles of roping. Some people are aggressive, others are conservative, and everyone ropes to his strengths. That’s interesting to me. I like to see why different things work the way they do. There’s a cause and effect. There’s a reason why everything works like it does, and why other things don’t work.

I’ve always been the kind of guy that when I see something I like I go to the practice pen and try to mimic it. I’ve taken things from Leo (Camarillo), Jerold (Camarillo), J.D. (Yates), Mike Beers, Denny Watkins, Walt Woodard, Rickey Green and Allen Bach. Those are just some of the guys that I grew up with and watching. Now I’m watching the younger guys like Kory Koontz, Britt Bockius and Richy Skelton, who are a little younger than me and are great ropers. I’m still trying to get better and I’m still trying new things. I still experiment all the time, and that’s what makes it fun.

I guess I was blessed with the ability to learn by watching. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been able to mimic what I saw. I could watch a run and play it back in my mind. I could take that visualization and put it into action trying to copy it. Not everyone is blessed like that, so they have to work harder at it.

If you watch and study what people do?the different moves, the way they handle their ropes and ride their horses?learning comes by trying it and doing it. Try to imitate what you see being done that works. That’ll give you a feel for what it feels like to actually do it. It’s a trial-and-error process. You don’t know what works until you go try it. If you don’t try new things and experiment, you don’t grow.

I was always interested in winning. Learning to win is the name of the game. So when I was a kid, I wasn’t so much fascinated with the cool stuff and looking good and stylish. I was more interested in the meat-and-potatoes guys who won day in and day out. I admired the guys who left with the money, even if they weren’t the flashiest. Gary Mouw, Don Beasley, Walt and Leo caught every steer and knew how to win. Their styles were such that they could catch every steer by two feet. They didn’t make mistakes, and that impressed me.

In the early stages of watching guys rope, I was focused on timing and delivery of the loop, because those were important fundamentals. When those things started working for me, I moved on to working toward being a better horseman and riding better position. I had the timing and delivery down, then I needed to learn to set up a run better with my horse. In the early ’80s, Mike Beers could set up the fastest runs among the heelers more consistently than anyone, so I picked up a lot of things by watching him.

I learned consistent shots from guys like Leo, Walt and Al Bach, and by watching how they rode their horses to get all their cattle caught. As roping’s progressed in the last 15 years or so, the cattle are smaller and more guys rope good. I keep changing and watching the guys who are winning, and trying to figure out how they’re doing what they’re doing. I watch them and study them, and look for what they’ve stumbled on to that’s making things work.

How they’re reading cattle and riding the corner, how they’re getting in time with steers?what’s making it work for them? The schooling and experimentation never end. I keep trying to evolve with the sport. Every sport’s gotten better and faster. Ours is no different, so you have to stay with the times. I do that by watching and learning.

Everything revolves around four basic areas?your riding position, swing, timing and delivery. All those things are thrown together in the action of a run, and there’s a lot of reading and reacting to what the header and steer are doing. I think roping can keep evolving more and more as time goes on. None of us are near the stage of perfection yet. Records are made to be broken.

If I watch and learn from what I see, the possibilities are endless for a beginner-type roper. You can get from A to Z so much faster by watching the best ropers than by starting from scratch on your own. Watch and go ask an expert when you have questions. It’s a lot easier for me to elaborate on questions than to just start telling you things. I don’t know anybody in the top 30 who wouldn’t take a few minutes to answer any roper’s question.

Watch or study the guys who are proven winners. There’s definitely something they do that produces the results they’re getting. The guys who win day in and day out are doing something right. You just need to figure out what that is, and apply it to yourself. It takes a lot of time, effort and study to become a good roper. Like most things in life, there’s no quick fix here. STW

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