Scoring properly in team roping is something I teach horses when they're young, and something I want to stay with them their whole careers. The way a horse scores affects everything from the way he leaves the box to the way you throw your lope to the way he sets a steer, so proper scoring is essential to success in the roping pen. Your body language in the box can set your horse up for a successful run or a big miss. Here are five basic tips to improving your scoring that I've learned over the years:
1. Calm your nerves. The way you use your rein hand in the box has a lot to do with the way your horse scores. A calm, consistent hand relays a steady message to your horse, so that horse knows to trust you and only you in the box. To achieve this, you must not let any nerves run down your back into your hands, your seat or your legs. Keeping a focused but relaxed mentality in the box and sticking to your gameplan will help keep your mind and your body relaxed.
2. Keep your hands still. I like to keep my hands still and steady in the box. I teach my horses early on to lean on the bit in the box. Unlike some ropers, I don't believe in loosening tension on the reins to calm a horse in the box. I want them comfortable with my keeping tension on the reins. When my horses are paying close attention to the tension I've got on the reins, they aren't bothered by the noise in the chute, the crowd, or even the heel horse leaving the box. It's the tension then that calms them. They'll know that when I've got a good hold on the reins, that doesn't mean move, that means stand. It's the release that means move. They are focused solely on the bit and the reins and my hand. My horse should have confidence in me, and allowing him to lean on the bit and trust my release is what builds that confidence.
3. Hold your hands level. When I'm in the roping box, my hands aren't too high or too low. I hold my hand just about even with and just in front of the saddle horn. This helps me maintain the appropriate tension on the reins with a good bend in my elbow. When I release the tension, my hand moves directly up the horse's neck horizontally.
4. Loosen your reins when you're ready. I want my horse not moving with the steer, my nod or the crack of the chute. I want my horse only moving with my release of tension on the rein and the squeeze of my legs. Before the chute cracks, my legs will be relaxed at my horse's side, but when I'm ready to go, I give my horse his head and squeeze my legs to send him to the steer.
5. Get to know your horse. Not every horse is the same in the box. Some require a lot more tension and a lot more bit than others. As long as they're working, listening to you, and doing their job, that's OK. I've known some great horses that kept their heads turned in the box and still ran straight and fast. I've known other horses that were so light-mouthed that they just needed slight, steady tension on the reins in the box. It's all a matter of getting to know the horse you're on at the time, and not taking for granted that every horse has the same feel.
For more on the men and women behind the great head horses in the industry, see July's issue.