How to prepare your horse for roping

Roping is a diverse discipline that requires a great deal of training. These tips will help you introduce your horse to the sport — safely and effectively.

There are many choices a horse can make when faced with the demands of roping. Whether you’re interested in getting into high-stakes team-roping competitions, casual practice roping events, or routine jobs around the ranch, a well-started riding horse is a good place to begin.

Teaching him to make safe choices

A horse that makes correct decisions under pressure is shaped by foundational elements. This isn’t always clear to the enthusiastic roper who is just starting out, but it’s extremely important. I am by no means an accomplished roper, but I do enjoy roping, and have actually needed to rope on occasion to improve a situation. Looking back, I am sure the success of those experiences can be attributed to the good decisions a well-prepared horse made when the pressure was on.

Basic movements

I appreciate a horse that has the ability to go forward and back without dragging his hooves. It is also always safer to ride a horse that can shift his shoulders left and right, and move his hips in any direction when needed or requested. Of course, a horse that can stop from any speed in a single stride, and liven up fully without a struggle, adds even more pleasure and safety.

Good manners

Beyond that, a good rope horse candidate can stand still when tied, held on a lead, or mounted. He’s comfortable around cattle, gets along with other horses, and can be mounted and dismounted from either side. He should also be physically sound and mentally willing to proceed through simple maneuvers, including turns.

Smooth transitions

Ideally, a rope horse should be able to accomplish these simple maneuvers while traveling along through upward and downward transitions between gaits. By this, I mean the horse travels smoothly from a walk, up to a trot, to a lope, and back down to the walk. Once your horse masters this, you can start refining the accuracy of hoof placement when he is asked to go from standstill to a gallop, and then stop immediately after a few strides forward. It is not unusual to witness horses stop mid-stride when they run with other horses, but achieving this under pressure is less common.

One-hand reining

I prefer to ride a horse that operates as easily in one hand as he does in two. This is important in roping, but it’s a good skill to practice well before you start training specifically for the sport. It’s best if the equipment you choose for the job (bosal, snaffle or spade bit, etc.) doesn’t distract your horse or interfere with his capacity to understand your feel through the reins. When accurate information from the reins is unavailable, the rider’s balance, seat and leg aids should confirm the well-prepared horse’s understanding of any request.

Refining a horse’s skills through feel and understanding

The next step in prepping your horse for roping is refining his basic skills. Evidence of refinement is apparent in a horse that takes deliberate, non-evasive steps. As the roper’s quickly-changing circumstances require, a well-trained horse will hold his considerable weight back and up off the forehand, while shifting his hindquarters to left or right when asked.

An adequately-prepared rope horse should easily back up straight and/or in an arc without dragging his hooves through the dirt, bracing up, tossing his head or dropping into the forehand.

The following exercises are a good starting point when training a roping horse:

  • Encourage him to move in medium and small figure eights at a fast walk, without dropping his shoulder, ribs and hips toward the center of the turn.
  • From a slow lope, ask him to stop straight, roll back over the hocks, and then walk off quickly and quietly on a loose rein. Refine this exercise in both directions.
  • Ask your horse to slowly back up in a 90° arc in both directions without dragging his hooves.
  • When the horse is ready (and not before), rope a solid post or tree stump from the saddle. Dally, back up, and ask him to hold it firmly. Step him up half a step to ease off, tighten again and repeat. When he can hold the rope at any tension you ask, walk around him on the ground and ask for any hoof. He should be able to offer it without losing his balance or failing to hold the “cow”.

Additional tips

1. Expose him to stimuli. By taking time to expose your horse to different sights and smells, an already-good roping horse will develop more versatility.

2. Get him used to cows. Make sure to school your prospective rope horse slowly and with enough care that he understands what to do when a roped cow or calf runs at him or moves unpredictably. This will prevent all three of you from getting injured. I like to turn prospective rope horses out with other horses and cattle in a large grazing area – they seem to do best when they get acquainted on their own. 

3. Train slowly. Successful results come from slow accurate work in the beginning. Be sure you can read your horse’s body language clearly and take your training one step at a time. Never try roping before your horse is ready.

4. Work with a qualified coach. Horses and cattle are unpredictable, so it’s strongly recommended that you seek the advice and hands-on guidance of a qualified coach before attempting the sport or roping on your own.

Practice your own skills

Before attempting roping on horseback, you must possess the physical strength, coordination, and considerable skills required to handle the horse from the ground and under saddle. Once that is accomplished, you need to develop the ability to “read” the cow, and be mindful that everything occurring in the area can affect the speed, direction and cooperation of the cow you are after and the horse you are riding.

Whether pursued as a weekend hobby, ranch job or serious sport, success at roping requires hand-eye coordination, and an understanding of the angle needed for a specific throw. Trial and error is the only way to become good at this, and the best place to begin is on foot with a “roping dummy”; this can be easily arranged by using a saw horse to practice your heel shots, and a tree stump or fence post to practice your head shot. If you want something more lifelike, you can purchase a cheap plastic cow head with a metal spike coming out the back that you can jam into a hay bale or mound of dirt to begin your head-shot practice.

When it’s time to try roping…

In the beginning, you want to use a breakaway honda (see sidebar) so you don’t get tied hard into something that makes your horse afraid.

Take the opportunity to drag a tire or log around behind your horse, and do that on both sides so he can see it. When a horse understands that an object being dragged behind him poses no danger, he’ll be better equipped for the experience of dragging or holding a calf. I practice this on hills to simulate the effect of a calf that alternately pulls and releases the line by charging around.

From the saddle, when he is comfortable dragging something, drag the rope against his flank, shoulders and legs while turning. A calf can take your rope just about anywhere after you get your loop on him, so it’s best if your horse knows what to expect. I prefer to expose a horse to these things slowly – this way, by the time you get to a banding pen, competition, or find yourself in a remote location to doctor cattle on your own, the horse is ready to help.

Last but not least, before you try roping, make sure your horse understands the value in making good decisions. He should always know when to remain calm, be still, and how to reply to your feedback when things don’t go as planned. Building this foundation will set him up to be a successful rope horse!

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Leslie Desmond started colts for public use from fifth grade forward. They could be tied, easily offer their hooves, and they didn't buck. "That's as much as I had learned by 1965 from my neighbor who trained the ‘old way’". Her coaching and training work in Massachusetts and California eventually brought her to Bill Dorrance, cowboy and rancher from Salinas, California. She apprenticed with him from 1995 to 1999, and co-authored the classic training manual True Horsemanship Through Feel.;; 602-228-7612.