As with saddle bronc riding, team roping developed out of the necessity to doctor sick or injured cattle on the open ranges of the American Frontier in the late 19th century. In fact, history records forms of roping dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Modern competitive team roping consists of a header (the roper that ropes either the horns, neck, or one horn and head) and a heeler (the roper that ropes the hind legs of the steer) who each start from roping boxes on either side a chute containing the steer. The steer is allowed a head start; if the header (or sometimes heeler) starts too soon, it results in a broken barrier and a 10-second penalty. The object is for the team to rope the steer by the horns (or other legal catches, mentioned above) and heels, and stretch the steer tight between the ropes, in the fastest time possible. The header ropes the steer and turns left, which sets up the shot for the heeler. The timer stops when the steer is legally caught, the ropes are tight, and both ropers are facing each other. A five-second penalty is assessed if the heeler “legs up” (catches only one hind leg), and disqualifications occur for any illegal catches on either end. In modern competition, it is common for times to be in the four and five-second range, which takes remarkable skill and timing on the part of both ropers and horses.
As always, the welfare of the animal athletes is top priority. A top heading or heeling horse is just as much of a well-trained specialist as the cowboy, and an integral part of success or failure in team roping competition. With the price of entry fees, feed, vet care, general maintenance and travel, cowboys routinely have several thousand dollars invested in each horse; therefore, it only makes sense that they want these equine athletes in top shape both physically and mentally as they are truly partners. Similarly, good roping cattle cost several hundred dollars each, and must be well maintained and “fresh” to feel great and perform well. Consequently, rodeo cattle are typically rotated to prevent over-use, and so remain durable and healthy.
ERA asked Two-Time World Champion Header and ERA athlete, Clay Tryan, some thoughts about the team roping event. Here’s what he shared.
Q: What would you most like the general public to know or understand about the sport of team roping?
A: I’d like people to know how much skill it really takes, and how good the ropers and horses are—and have to be. Team roping is a skill that is still practiced on the ranch.
Q: What thoughts do you have about the livestock, both horses and cattle, used in team roping?
A: Our horses are unbelievably expensive; we take better care of them than we do ourselves! They have to love what they do, or they won’t be any good at it. What a good horse does for you makes it all easier; the horses become part of our families. We also take great care of the steers; as I mentioned we still team rope on the ranch to doctor one or bring it back to the herd. Team roping started on the big ranches.
Q: What tips do you have for aspiring team ropers to help them improve? Maybe something you know now, that you wish you would have known earlier in your career?
A: Just practice more. Practice being fast, and practice a lot. It takes a lot of hours to improve. I’ve heard that team ropers practice the most of any event, just because we can. Roping doesn’t take the physical toll on your body like broncs and bulls, so team ropers can—and should—practice the most.
As with other rodeo events like team roping and saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping got its start in the late 1800s of the American West; with no fences yet on the open range, cowboys needed a way to catch and temporarily immobilize sick calves in order to doctor or brand them. Naturally, this skill was practiced during a cowboy’s “down time” and eventually turned into contests of who could do it the most efficiently–and the fastest. Over the years, this competition evolved into tie-down roping as we know it today.
In modern rodeo, the roper starts from the roping box, next to the chute containing the calf, and allows the calf a head start. If the roper leaves too soon, he is assessed a 10-second penalty for breaking the barrier. The roper then attempts to rope the calf around the neck as fast as he can, then pulls his slack (the extra distance in his rope) to the side to stop the calf and turn it around, usually facing the horse. Any part of the calf’s body is considered a legal catch, with the neck being ideal because when done properly it allows the calf to keep its feet. If the calf does fall, it must be allowed to get to its feet again before the run continues. As soon as the roper throws his loop, the tie-down horse stops, begins his crucial job of keeping the rope tight (all on his own) for the cowboy, and the cowboy dismounts and runs to the calf. Next, he flanks the calf (a term meaning to set a calf on their side or flank) and ties any three feet together. Finally, the roper throws both hands in the air, signaling that he is finished, and returns to his horse. The roper is only disqualified if he misses the calf or if the calf doesn’t stay tied six seconds. In modern competition, an entire tie-down roping run can be in the six and seven-second ranges at the highest levels of competition.
The highest value is placed on the animal athletes–literally. Top tie-down roping horses can command $100,000 or even larger price tags, and good calves routinely cost several hundred dollars each. Therefore, it is the ultimate priority of cowboys and stock contractors to keep the equine and bovine athletes safe, healthy, energized and in top condition through routine health care, the highest quality feed, on site veterinarians, and through simple rotation of the roping cattle to keep them fresh and durable. Roping horses also often receive chiropractic and massage therapies, along with special diets and maintenance programs fit for (and often used by) their human counterparts.
ERA asked multiple World and All-Around Champion and ERA athlete Trevor Brazile about some of his thoughts on the tie-down roping event. Here’s what he shared.
Q: What would you most like the general public to know or understand about the tie-down roping event?
A: I think there’s a big misconception about the cattle; people don’t realize they’re very strong and it’s like handling a middle linebacker. It’s an art to handle them with less stress also. This is how we doctor sick or injured cattle in the pasture; it’s the opposite of what a lot of people think–roping is a way to take care of livestock. It would be interesting to put someone who doesn’t understand this in a pen with calves that need vaccinations to save their lives, then see how they would give them those shots without roping them.
Q: What are your thoughts about the animal athletes used in your event?
A: My horses are huge in every event I use a rope in. They are a huge part of my success and they are well taken care of. If they can’t do their job, I can’t do mine. Depending on the arena, they may do 50% of the workload in a run; it’s always a major role.
Q: What tips can you share with aspiring tie-down ropers, maybe something you know now that would have helped you earlier in your career?
A: Don’t overlook horsemanship. This is a sport, but it’s also a discipline and an art so be the whole package. Do all it takes to be competitive. The better horseman you become, the easier your job becomes also.
Although its origins are somewhat elusive, bareback riding seems to have originated around 1900 as part of early cowboy contests that would become rodeos. Always looking for new forms of entertainment, recollections indicate that cowboys of the era also tried their hand at riding broncs bareback, using only a mane hold or simple rope tied around the girth for a handle. Over time, the bareback “rigging” was developed; simply stated it is a specialized leather handle, with no stirrups, attached to a cinch. Consequently, for the cowboy, bareback riding evolved into one of the most physically demanding and injury-riddled rodeo events as his riding hand, arm and shoulder are constantly subjected to the entire force of the ride.
Bareback riding remains similar to saddle bronc riding, in that the cowboy must mark the horse out of the chute (keep the spurs above the point of the shoulders until the horse has completed the initial jump and landing out of the chute) and stay aboard for eight seconds to receive a score. But, the event differs in that there’s no halter or rein, and the cowboy moves his feet in an upward-downward motion above the point of the horse’s shoulders, rather than front to back. Scoring is similar in both bronc riding events— two judges score the ride on a scale of 0-25 points; half the score (50 points) is on the horse, the other half on the rider, including his overall rhythm and spurring technique. The goal is for the ride to look as fluid and effortless as possible.
And, as with all rodeo events, the animal athletes are expensive (often $10,000 and up), well cared for and faithfully maintained. Just like human athletes, animal athletes have to feel well to perform well. Bucking horses are specialists who are bred to buck, and stock contractors routinely buy and sell them through bucking horse sales.
ERA asked multiple World Champion Bareback Rider and ERA athlete Bobby Mote for his thoughts on the bareback riding event. Here’s what he shared.
Q: What would you most like the general public to know about the bareback riding event?
A: I would like people to know that I don’t think of it as me against the other competitors. I think of it as I’m doing the best I can on each horse. I want him to buck as good as he can so I can ride as good as I can. I want to help his ability to buck—not inhibit it. That’s something people may not know.
Q: What thoughts can you share about the equine athletes?
A: They play a huge role. Each horse is an individual, and some have been around a long time—my whole career! They each have their own personality and traits; they like doing what they do or they wouldn’t do it. The fact that many have shown such longevity during my whole career says a lot about their owners and care. I look forward to drawing certain horses and knowing what to expect, or some that I struggle with I may not look forward to!
Q: What tips do you have for aspiring bareback riders, maybe something you know now that would have helped you earlier in your career?
A: There are no secrets to success and no shortcuts. Execute the basics. The guy that tries the hardest wins. When you get paired with a great equine athlete—you’re going to win. There are no shortcuts. This is hard to learn and do, harder than expected. Sometimes we think there must be shortcuts, but truthfully shortcuts take us further away from the desired outcome. Just execute the basics.
Saddle Bronc Riding
Saddle bronc riding is the most classic and iconic of all rodeo events. Similar to team roping, it was born out of necessity on the open range of the late 19th century American West. Top hand cowboys, often called “bronc peelers,” were hired by the trail drive outfits and later by the large ranches to “top off” the rankest broncs—an old term meaning to stay aboard the bronc until it was done bucking. These men were talented specialists, in high demand, who commanded top wages to provide reliable, suitable mounts. Naturally, with the carefree and competitive spirit of the cowboy, still prevalent today, contests developed to prove who could ride one the best and longest; that challenge evolved into saddle bronc riding as we know it today.
In modern competition, to obtain a qualified score, the cowboy must follow the mark-out rule, which states that the rider’s spurs must be above the point of the horse’s shoulders in the chute until after the front feet hit the ground, after the first jump out. The rider must stay aboard for eight seconds, and for a top score he must spur the horse in a forward to back motion throughout the ride. He is disqualified if he touches the horse, his equipment, or himself with his free hand, if he fails to mark the horse out of the chute, or if he bucks off prior to eight seconds. Typically, two judges score the ride on a scale of 0-25 points; half the score (50 points) is on the horse, the other half on the rider.
In saddle bronc riding, cowboys use a bronc saddle (similar to a regular western saddle, but with free swinging, specially set stirrups and no horn) and a bronc halter and rein, rather than a bridle. The bronc rein is typically braided from cotton or polyester. The cowboy “measures the rein” by measuring the distance from the horse’s head in a natural position to the rear of the saddle well; the additional length is calculated by how much the horse drops its head when it bucks.
Holding true to tradition, the safety and welfare of the animal athletes is top priority. Tough, gritty horses were invaluable on the open range and helped settle the West, and they are invaluable to the institution of rodeo. Consequently, after perhaps a 16-second work week (if in only two performances) they are typically found resting and eating, and are maintained with regular veterinary care.
ERA asked top veteran saddle bronc rider and ERA athlete Bradley Harter for some insights on the saddle bronc event. Here’s what he shared.
Q: What would you most like the general public to know or understand about your event?
A: I think one thing that is misunderstood is that saddle bronc riders use our balance, and rely on that, instead of mainly strength like the bareback riders do. You may see that a lot of saddle bronc riders don’t have as much muscle! We use the rein that goes to the halter to help balance too. We use more balance than most of the rough stock events.
Q: What thoughts would you like to share about the animal athletes, namely saddle broncs?
A: This is also misunderstood I think. The livestock means everything. When it comes down to the top 12 cowboys in the world who all ride great, it also comes down to what animal they are on that separates them. The great horses are what divide the best bronc riders; everybody is good so it’s about being on the right horse at the right time to win the money. They have to buck well for us to ride well.
Q: What advice would you like to share with aspiring bronc riders, maybe something that you know now that would have helped you earlier in your career?
A: Always have fun and enjoy it. If you start treating it as a job, and start focusing on the money and trying to pay the bills, it doesn’t go well. We start doing this because we love and enjoy it. If it isn’t fun, and you aren’t doing it from the heart, you won’t be successful. You have to do it because you enjoy it!
Always fast-paced and popular, barrel racing is the featured cowgirls’ event at most rodeos. Women have been an integral part of the sport of rodeo dating back to circa 1900 when Annie Oakley was the featured sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The earliest form of barrel racing seems to originate in the 1930s, and featured either a figure eight or cloverleaf pattern. However, it focused on horsemanship ability and the ladies’ outfits rather than speed. As a competitive sport, it emerged in either Florida or Texas around 1950, according to the recollections of some of the sport’s first competitive cowgirls. In the past decades, barrel racing has secured its place as a spectator favorite and top paying event at rodeos, with hundreds of jackpot associations world wide.
Modern barrel racing is set in a cloverleaf pattern; riders can choose to start to the left (making a left turn at first barrel, and then two right turns on barrels two and three) or right (one right turn, followed by two lefts); the choice is often based on the preference of the horse, as horses tend to be right or left “handed” similar to humans. Pattern measurements can be adjusted to fit arena size, but a standard pattern is set at 90 feet between barrels one and two; 105 feet between barrels one and three and two and three; and barrels one and two are typically 60 feet from the score line or electric eye. Competitive barrel racing times can vary from 13 to 14-second runs in small indoor arenas, to 15 to 17-second runs in larger pens, and so on.
Obviously, barrel racing horses play the major role in these fast times; it is common for a good barrel horse to be priced in the $50,000 to $100,000 range at the professional level. As a result, most equine athletes receive the treatment of kings and queens, including routine health care, massage therapy, vitamin and mineral supplementation, chiropractic care, consistent specialty shoeing, custom-fitted saddle pads and gear, air-ride horse trailers, and specialized feeds for their work loads. Barrel racers realize that without them, and without maintaining them in top-notch condition, a successful rodeo career is impossible. ERA asked multiple World Champion Barrel Racer Charmayne James for some thoughts on the barrel racing event. Here’s what she shared
Q: What would you like the general public to know or understand about barrel racing that they may not realize?
A: Barrel racing can really be a sport where the fundamentals have to be correct, like horse and rider position, to make a fast run. To the naked eye, spectators may not be able to see all of that. For those horses to compete at that level, they have to run hard, rate and turn and to put them in the right place isn’t easy, especially with the extra speed. Going slow is one thing, but when you are going that fast things can go haywire!
Q: What are your thoughts about the animal athletes used in barrel racing?
A: I tell everybody that my horses are a blessing and gift from God. So many kids live in cities for instance and they want horses and can’t have them; I see that all the time. I have never taken for granted that I do have horses and get to do what I love and I’m just so thankful for that.
Q: What tips can you share with aspiring barrel racers? Maybe something you know now that would have helped you earlier in your career?
A: People are so often worried about what others think of them, and it keeps them from moving forward. You have to make mistakes and learn and that’s what moves you ahead. Also, the time spent riding and learning good horsemanship is one of the most important aspects in being a successful barrel racer
Also known as bulldogging, or the “big man’s event” as it requires strength and considerable technique; the steer outweighs the cowboy by 200 pounds (or more), making technique paramount. Steer wrestling is usually the fastest of all rodeo events; the world record of 2.6 seconds has stood since 1976. Reportedly, steer wrestling most likely began in the 1920s, when legendary Wild West Show performer and cowboy Bill Pickett caught a runaway steer by wrestling it to the ground. Interestingly, it appears that the earliest steer wrestlers wore one boot and one standard low-top shoe, apparently for what they thought was a quicker dismount from the horse.
In the modern day event as we know it, the steer wrestler and the hazer (the second cowboy that runs on the opposite side of the steer, to keep the steer running straight) start from boxes adjacent to the chute holding the steer, and as in the roping events, the steer is allowed a head start. If the cowboy leaves too soon, he is assessed a 10-second penalty for breaking the barrier. As the steer runs down the arena, the steer wrestler slides off the right side of his horse, at full speed, and wraps his right arm around the right horn of the steer and his left hand grabs the left horn, and he throws both of his legs out in front and “digs in” to stop the steer, twist his head around, and wrestle him to the ground. The clock stops when the steer is down on his side with all four feet pointing the same direction. The cowboy receives a disqualification if he misses or fails to throw the steer. Similar to team roping, partnership is important here; the hazer plays a major role in the success of the run and usually earns a cut of the steer wrestler’s prize money.
The equine and bovine athletes are critical to any rodeo event; therefore their health, safety and welfare are paramount. Rodeos require on-site veterinarians, cattle are well fed and rotated to keep them fresh, energetic and willing to perform, and steer wrestling and hazing horses are very expensive “specialists” that are treated as such. They routinely receive chiropractic and massage care, top quality well-balanced feeds, hoof care, immunizations, vitamin and joint supplementation, air-ride transportation, and more. With their value often exceeding $50,000–everything possible is done to keep them in top notch condition. Notably, the tedious care rodeo stock receives has shown over the past years to be extending their overall lifespans considerably, not unlike strides that are being made in human life expectancy through healthcare, exercise and dietary advancements.
ERA asked multiple World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho for some thoughts on the steer wrestling event. Here’s what he shared.
Q: What would you most like the general public to know or understand about your event?
A: I think people don’t realize how important the hazer is to keep that steer running straight, not left or right, and to keep him from stopping. We call it a thankless job; everybody notices when the hazer doesn’t do well, but generally not when he does a good job.
Q: What thoughts would you like to share about the animal athletes, like bulldogging horses and cattle?
A: The livestock are the most important thing to us cowboys—not the money. Without them, there’s no chance at winning any money. So we try really hard to keep them from injury, in the way we warm them up, from the right boots, saddles and pads to feeding techniques with supplements. We do all we can to keep them healthy.
Q: What advice would you like to share with aspiring steer wrestlers, maybe something that you know now that would have helped you earlier in your career?
A: No matter where you are in life, just starting or in college or pros, stay positive and strive for your goals. If you get negative, it really eats you up inside. Try to stay positive all the time.
While events like bronc riding and roping have their origins in the daily ranch work of a cowboy, bull riding seems to originate from another cowboy staple–the lure of fun and adventure, and the art of seizing the opportunity to compete at almost anything. Variations of competitive bull riding are documented on the haciendas of Old Mexico as far back as the 16th century, and in California and Texas by the mid 1800s. The Wild West shows that followed featured steer riding. It wasn’t until the 1930s that bull riding adopted standardized rules and began to develop into the event that we recognize today.
Modern competitive bull riding is always a crowd favorite, unpredictable and full of danger. A typical bull rider weighs 150 to 160 pounds; a typical bull weighs 2,000. The cowboy must stay aboard for eight seconds to receive a score. Unlike other roughstock events, he doesn’t have to mark the bull out of the chute (meaning he isn’t required to have his feet above the point of the bull’s shoulders when he leaves the chute), but similar to bronc riding he can’t touch the bull, or himself, with his free hand; doing so results in no score/disqualification. The ride is scored on both the bull’s bucking ability and the cowboy’s riding ability; a spinning bull and spurring cowboy will often mark the best scores–90 points or better. To stay aboard, the bull rider holds on to the bull rope (a flat braided piece of rope around the bull’s girth) with one hand, and wraps the tail of the rope around his hand or may choose to weave it through his fingers for extra grip.
Of all rodeo events, mental toughness, strength and fast reflexes play essential roles. And, as always, the animal athletes receive the best of care, feed, rest and veterinary attention possible. Bucking bulls are specialists and athletes; there are many bucking bull breeders who have sold generations of bucking stock for top dollar to stock contractors.