Roping events call for absolute teamwork between horse and rider. The horse's job is to position the rider to make a catch, and then work the end of the rope to keep it taut. Here are some of the skills judges will look for in roping events:
1) Your horse should be quiet but alert in the box. "Alert" can mean very alert. If your horse quivers, that's okay. It's also OK for him to move a leg, but he shouldn't be jumping around or otherwise indicate he's difficult for you to control. (For more tips on keeping your horse calm in the box, see H&R, April 2004, "Quiet Anticipation" by Ted Chancy with Sue Copeland.)
2) If you're heading, your horse should break quickly and show speed, running to the steer, then rating it (running alongside at the steer's pace) to position you for a good shot. If you're heeling, your horse should rate the steer without getting so close that he risks bumping into its hips or stepping on its hind legs.
3) If you're heading, your horse must set the steer and turn it 90 degrees after you've caught it and made your dally, positioning it so the heeler can catch the hind legs. He'll get good marks if he can do this without struggling. Judges like to see a horse that can "log" a steer (maneuver it off to the side after the header has caught it) with strength.
4) Some headers run out and put their horses into a slide, a bit of showmanship that can actually work against you. Once you've caught the steer's horns, you want the horse to get his rear end in the ground to take the jerk, but you don't want him to stop and just let the steer's action die there. He needs to be able to get the steer turned and moving forward for the heeler to make his catch.
5) When the heeler catches, your head horse should run to the end of the rope, make a bright and quick turn, then face the steer while staying light and keeping the rope taut. The judges will fault your horse if he's reluctant to go to the end of the rope, rears, or gets "rubber bandy" (bounces around) when he faces up.
6) If you're heeling, the judges will be looking to see that your horse makes the corner without cutting in after the header has set and turned the steer. If he cuts in, he'll put you at the steer's shoulder, and you won't be positioned for a good shot at the hind legs.
7) Once you've caught the heels and dallied, your horse should get his rear end into the ground as hard as he can, stopping deep and square without being jerked off-balance by the rope. And, he should hold the rope taut without moving. He'll lose points in heeling if he bounces forward when feeling the rope's jerk, or if he fights with his head.
Bob Avila has ridden home with AQHA world championships in cutting, reining, working cow horse, western riding and halter. In 1996 he was named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year--the first-ever recipient of the award. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is located in Temecula, Cal.