I grew up on a commercial cattle ranch high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California. I know what some of you may be thinking. “They don’t have cowboys in California.” Well, think again! I hate to break it to you, but some of the best cowboys I know, both in and out of the arena, hail from the Golden State. But that is irrelevant. The point is that I grew up on a cattle ranch, so that meant riding horses that were less than perfect and then finishing them out into All-Around horses that could be used in literally every event.
My first rope horse was a hand-me-down from my dad. He was a gorgeous buckskin that my dad couldn’t seem to get along with because he was “too gentle.” Dad had been cowboying and rodeoing on him for several years, so by the time I got on him, he was extremely broke, blew to cattle, had a big move to the left and knew how to drop the flag with a face. Luckily, I was a great rider and many years of branding calves and doctoring cattle taught me how to dally quickly and safely.
I rode that horse for several years. He built my confidence and led me to many victories. The day I retired him was a sad day. But, unlike a lot of rodeo kids, I didn’t get to go pick out a new, finished head horse that was already going down the road. I picked a young horse out of our ranch horse string and went to work finishing him as a rope horse. I made a lot of mistakes back then, and now, almost 20 years later, I am still learning how to be a better horseman and better roper.
Here are some tips I have learned in the years of starting and finishing my own head horses.
The Keys To Success
- Start Slow. The worst thing that you can do with a young horse is push them too hard, too fast. Young horses, like young children, have immature minds. The first colt I picked out of our string was a bay gelding. By this time, I was a freshman in college so I was roping daily with the rodeo team. I didn’t waste any time saddling up and chasing cattle down the pen on him. We didn’t really have sleds back then, so rather than taking my time roping a lead steer, like Ricky Bobby, I just wanted to go fast.
Luckily, he had a great mind and a solid foundation on the ranch, so he turned out okay. I was not so lucky with the second horse that I had started, who immediately developed issues in the box. Heed this advice: creating problems is a lot easier than fixing them! Keep it slow and work at your horse’s pace, and I promise, you will be happy with the outcome.
- Be Patient. Patience…it’s definitely not everyone’s strong point. I know it is something that I have struggled with my entire life. But, if you are going to start a young horse in the roping pen, you better develop it fast! Your young or green horse is going to make mistakes. They don’t know what you are asking of them, so you have to be willing to show them in a way that doesn’t scare or intimidate them. Which brings me to my next point…
- Be Consistent. It’s just like raising kids or training dogs…when it comes to starting a head horse, you HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT! You can’t punish a horse for doing something wrong one day, and then reward him by letting him get away with it the next. That sends mixed signals and will not only keep you from making any progress with your horse, but it could potentially even blow them up into an unsafe nutcase that no one wants to be around. Consistency is key to making a solid rope horse.
- Don’t Over-Do It. Quit while you are ahead. Remember that you are roping for your horse when you are on a young one, not yourself! It’s always a good idea to reward a horse that is learning by not pushing them to the point that they want to fight with you.
Building A Solid Foundation
Now that you have and understand the keys to success, let’s get into the actual process to starting your head horse.
- Foundational Training. Before you can have a good head horse, you need to have a good BROKE horse. If you can’t do it without a steer, you can’t do it with a steer! Work on getting your horse good and broke. What do I mean by broke? Hint: I don’t mean “gentle”. I mean that you can get on your horse and kick him into a trot, a lope, a run, stop him, back him up, turn him around (not just on his hind end, but also get him to pivot his butt around his front end which is key when facing), side pass both directions…all with very little pulling on the reins. God gave you feet for a reason and that was to cue your horse! To get a horse to this point takes a lot of riding along with utilizing the “keys to success” listed above.
- Introduce Your Horse To The Rope. Not all young horses know what a rope is or how to react to one. Start by swinging your rope on the ground around your horse to get him comfortable. The round pen is a great place to do this. As your horse becomes more comfortable with you swinging a rope around him, you can start making the rope a safe object for him, rubbing your rope all over him, tossing it down around his legs, placing it over his head, and tossing it over his neck and back. If he reacts negatively to it, then slow down and go back to something that he was more comfortable with. Eventually, having a rope around him will be very comfortable and you will be able to swing easily while in the saddle.
- Logging. Logging is probably one of my favorite tools for training the head horse. Not only does it teach them how to pull and give them a nice move through the corner and across the arena, but it also teaches them how to face fast and efficiently. Jake Barnes says that horses should be rewarded with a faster time because of their ability to face. So often these days, we see horses that only half-face or flounder around on the end of the rope keeping it from coming tight. Not only does this cost you by keeping the flag from dropping, but a horse that doesn’t face well can also cost your heeler! A steer on a line that isn’t coming tight is a steer whose back legs can kick out of a heel loop!
It is a general misconception that you should use something heavier to log your horse. I recommend using something light, like a light piece of wood or even a tire. This will build your horse’s confidence and keep him from getting too tired. A tired horse will shut down and stop working.
- Sled Work. I find the sled or mechanical steer to be an invaluable tool for starting the head horse. It is way to pattern your young or green horse in a controlled setting. As we talked about with the “Keys To Success” above, you need to start slow. Slow means WALK! Follow the sled at the walk without a rope. Make sure to keep your horse in position. After a while you can start swinging your rope and actually rope the sled at a walk. When you rope the sled, I recommend stopping your horse straight, rather than turning him left. This will teach him to set the steer up and get his head and keep him from ducking later on. It will also teach him how to rate. As time goes on and your horse becomes more comfortable staying in position, you can switch it up a little by throwing your rope and following the sled for several strides, or even slowing your horse and starting to put your right leg into him, cueing him to move left. By switching it up often, you are teaching your horse to respond to YOUR cues, rather than a generalized pattern.
The next step is to speed up to a trot, then a lope. But remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. These steps are not meant to be accomplished in a matter of days, but a matter of weeks, or even months, depending on how far along your green horse is to start with.
I also find it incredibly effective to use my mechanical steer or sled to introduce my horse to the box and teach him how to break flat, rate, and stay in position. As I said before, the sled is an invaluable tool when it comes to starting the head horse. It is also great for tuning up a finished horse.
- Rope The Lead Steer. If you don’t have a nice lead steer and you are planning on starting or finishing a young or green horse, I recommend that you get one. While working on the mechanical steer is great, it is not 100% life-like. A lead steer will add another element to starting your horse that will prepare him for the inconsistency that live cattle bring to the equation. If you have a really good lead steer, you can breakaway rope him or you can rope him, steer stop him, and he will broke enough to lead behind you so that you can start practice patterning your horse to go left and face.
- Start Practicing. You have taken your time and completed all the steps above and your horse is now ready to move on to making live runs. As I have said multiple times, start slow! Find some slow cattle to rope that aren’t heavy on the end of a rope. You want to keep building your horse’s confidence and roping fast or heavy cattle could discourage him and ruin all of your progress. As you make more and more practice runs, you will be able to increase the speed and soon you will be able to start hauling to small jackpots.