At our house, the barrel pattern is switched out almost daily to make way for a herd of roping steers. Marrying a team roper has definitely kept me in touch with the roping world, and I believe I have been able to keep my horsemanship skills even sharper because I rope with Turtle.
Turtle helps me with my colts, stopping a few steers on them for me occasionally, and he also gives me some roping pointers, as well. My roping career, however, actually goes back to when I was chasing that all-around buckle as a high school cowgirl. My good friend Jody Petersen and her mom, Nancy, would invite me over to their arena in Three Forks, Mont., and give me breakaway roping lessons. Although I didn’t go on to become a breakaway champion, the horsemanship skills I gained from our practices were very valuable to my barrel racing success.
Feeling a Stop
Roping is an event where the name of the game is to rope a steer or calf as fast as possible. What enables you to win is the advantage of a good horse. Jody and Nancy’s horses always had such good minds. They scored excellently, allowing a fast start behind the calf, and they stopped amazingly fast, which helped the rope break away from the saddle horn and stop the time.
We would track steers and calves around their arena for hours, encouraging our horses to stop up underneath themselves quietly and correctly. The cue that caused that stop was easy and consistent: sit down and pick your horse’s front end up to allow him to slide up underneath himself. To do this, the horse’s nose also needed to be tucked down in respect to the bit.
This technique taught me to recognize the “feel” of a horse’s mouth and body coming together in preparation for a stop. Why is this important? Well, before roping, I just thought you would pull on the reins and stop. I soon realized that without preparation, my horse would stop on his front end and jar me into the swells of my saddle. I learned the hard way on a borrowed horse that if you aren’t sitting down and prepared for a stop, it isn’t going to be good. I fell off over the front of that horse and broke my leg!
On the other hand, a horse that is prepared by the rider stops smoother and more consistently—and seems to stay sounder in his hind end, too.
I worked all the time on the feel of that stop: sit, lift his front end, follow through with his hind end by pushing my rear down into the saddle and pushing my feet forward. The process of the stop was more about that feel, with my body language resulting in a graceful stop, rather than pulling on my horse’s mouth.
Tracking and Turning
These days, I have a lot of opportunity to rope with Turtle, mostly tracking a lead steer around in our arena. A lead steer is trained to continue in a large circular pattern to the left at the end of the arena. This pattern allows us to track (while swinging our ropes) over the steer and then heel the steer and stop our horses when we feel that our horses have given us a good shot to catch. The majority of the time, this exercise is done at a slow lope and trot. Turtle uses this exercise to quiet and focus the minds of his rope horses before he ropes out of the box at a higher rate of speed. It also helps his horses stay fresh, relaxed and stopping smooth.
It always amazes me how much tracking a lead steer helps me stay tuned up for barrel racing. After a few trips behind the lead steer, a horse will usually start to anticipate the left turn and want to cut to the inside of the circle. I have to mentally stay in the moment with my riding, and not anticipate the turn myself.
I will try to avoid standing in my inside stirrup, anticipating the turn, and closing my horse’s ribs to the turn. Ideally, I will stay balanced in each stirrup, and drive equally with both my legs to keep forward motion. This challenges my focus as a rider to make sure I pick up my horse with my inside (left) rein and guide him up and around the turn to stay right in behind the steer. I guess you could call it “collected flexion” when my horse is tipping his nose to the inside and staying collected with his body—which makes him more athletic when turning. A stiff horse is not only less controllable in a turn, but many times, by dropping his shoulder, will have trouble with his footing as well.
The steer is a great training aid, not only for the horse, but for myself as a rider because, even though it is loping in a circle pattern, the pattern can change. Having to handle my horse while tracking the steer really helps me to evaluate how my horse is handling and if he is in the correct bit.
This exercise is great practice for anyone riding a horse that wants to shoulder a barrel turn. It’s the exact same concept and can help correct a riding habit. I will take a shouldering horse to the roping pen, not to stress him out, but to re-program us both using a different event.
Take the Challenge
Roping on my horses has challenged my horsemanship and riding abilities, and I have definitely stayed sharper as a horseman because of it. The next time you come to a road block with your barrel racing, consider trying out the roping practice pen to correct problems and refocus your own riding skills.