Rope Horse 101: Top Pros Talk Training

We asked three top pros what they think every rope horse needs to know, and they?ve given us the rundown on what they want from a roping prospect.
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We asked three top pros what they think every rope horse needs to know, and they?ve given us the rundown on what they want from a roping prospect.

Occasionally, you'll hear someone say of their top horse, "He's never cost me any money." Meaning: their horse has never kept them from winning in a situation where everything else seemed favorable. Can you say that about your horse? Horses that fit that description are very rare. Most likely, those horses had the unique combination of solid training and natural ability. But the experts we talked to said that even horses with a lesser degree of natural ability, but a solid start, can become valuable partners in the arena.

We asked three top pros what they think every rope horse needs to know, and they've given us the rundown on what they want from a roping prospect. The variations in their answers may surprise you.

JD Yates: So many people try to rope on horses that aren't broke these days, and so many horses need more time riding before they ever see the roping pen. Cowboys used to ride the range on their horses, dragging calves to the fire during brandings, spending hours and hours in the saddle. Those wet saddle blankets got horses broke, and then for fun the guys would go to the roping pen.

JD Yates | Photo by Kirt Steinke

JD Yates | Photo by Kirt Steinke

Some people gather cattle with four-wheelers and don't use their rope horses for that. Today, even some of my best show horses go to the brandings and drag calves. Too many horses only see cattle or get truly worked in the roping pen. Gathering cattle and dragging calves helps clear horses' minds, keeping them fresh.

Aside from wet saddle blankets, I want my young rope horses to have respect for the bit. This doesn't mean they have their heads on the ground and overflexed, but I want their chin to come in towards their chest just slightly when I pull on the reins. I like my horses to stop in a straight line, with their heads up and their rear ends down into the dirt.

My young horses should all respect leg pressure. When I lay my leg on my horses, I want them to respect that leg and let me put them in the position I want them to be in. Of course, your rodeo horses that are used to running hard all the time might not be as sensitive, both in the mouth and on their sides. There are different levels of broke that work for different people.

Matt Sherwood: I like to start horses on cattle younger than some others. I roped off of a 5-year-old at the NFR, and I rode a friend's 4 year old at the Timed Event Championships last year.

Matt Sherwood | Photo by Dan Hubbell

Matt Sherwood | Photo by Dan Hubbell

I break horses as 2 year olds, and by 2-and-a-half or 3 I will start tracking the lead steer and steer-stopping the slow steers. But to get them to this point where I'm comfortable working cattle, I want them to have a few essential skills.

First, I want my young rope horses to have a good whoa. I want them flexing and loping circles both directions. I'm not going to say it's essential that my horses flex left and right and break at the poll, because I've known a lot of great rodeo horses that really weren't all that broke. Those skills are important, but not totally essential.

I want my horse to understand that when I throw my loop, he should start to rate. I like him to run hard until I throw, then start to move straight across the pen. This all requires my horse to be listening to my body cues and understanding that he needs to rate when I throw.

Rickey Green: First and foremost, any horse you want to rope off of cannot be afraid of the rope anywhere on his body.

Rickey Green | Photo by Jay Presti-OLP Media

Rickey Green | Photo by Jay Presti-OLP Media

Second, I want my horse to respond to shifts in my body weight. I balance in my stirrups and regulate my horse's movement mainly using my body weight in my stirrups. If I put my weight in my left stirrup, I want my horse to fade to the left - the same goes to the right.

I mainly use the bridle to regulate speed, so I want my horse to flex at the poll and get his back rounded and hind end low when I bump the reins. If I ask my horse to run hard, I want him to be able to stop hard, too.

Because steers don't always run straight, it's a good thing if your horse can easily swap leads to track a steer that's zig-zagging across the pen.

That idea of being able to track a steer leads me to my final point: I want my rope horses to be cowy. I want to be able to send him to a steer like you'd sick a Queensland heeler dog on a steer. I don't want to have to ride him up to the steer.

Which one of these pros' training philosophies is most similar to your own? Tell us on our Facebook page: facebook.com/spintowinrodeo