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Roping - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Cowboy and horse after a steer, with the roping loop in the air. Roping Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

Roping as we know it today was invented and developed in the Americas. The hard-riding and rope-swinging American cowboy is an image that most people know.


In Iberia (where it all began), the swinging and throwing of a catch rope was not known by mounted herdsmen and not seen in the ranching culture. Cattle were, and still are, driven into corrals and chutes and then handled.

Some other peoples know the use of a rope, like the Samoyeds and other reindeer-farming peoples in or near the artic region, who catch their reindeer by throwing their ropes afoot.

The Mongolian people do ride when catching animals with a rope, mainly horses, but they have the rope and loop attached to a long pole, ride up to the animal to be caught, and slip the loop over its head.

The French Camargue riders also rope but do not swing and throw the rope like it is done in the Americas.

Roping as known today, especially from the back of a horse, is only practised by the vaqueros of Central and South America, and the North American cowboy.

Just when the invention was made, and the particular skill developed to throw a loop with the speed and accuracy necessary for successful roping, is not known. Mexican vaqueros brought it north into what was to become the USA, but that does not necessarily mean the technique was developed there, although that is rather probable.

It is however, well known that the California vaquero became a master in swinging his reata with such deadly accuracy that even in fights, many a man would not hesitate to face another one armed with a gun! The horses were swift and sure-footed, so that even elk, wolves, and coyotes were pursued and roped.


La reata, the rawhide-braided rope, was anglicized into lariat, then replaced by the hemp rope, then by today’s nylon rope. Roping today at least in most contests is done almost exclusively with nylon ropes, thin diameters for calf roping, heavier ones for team roping and general ranch work.

The rope has a relatively small noose at one end, through which the rest of the rope is run, forming a loop. Once the loop is settled over the horns, or over the head, or around the legs of the animal to be caught, the slack is taken out by a pull, after which the horse breaks and thus tightens the rope, stopping the caught animal. This is achieved in hard and fast roping because the other end of the rope is tied hard and fast to the saddle horn, which was typical for the Texas cowboy (or to the saddle with the South American vaqueros, vaqueiros, and gauchos). Or this other end is held coiled up in the other hand of the cowboy, the one he also holds his reins in, while he uses his free hand to take a wrap or two around the saddle horn. This wrapping is called in Spanish dar le vuelta, from which the anglicized term dally derived. That is why this technique is known today as dally roping.

The small noose mentioned above is called a honda, which means in Spanish as much as a catapult, or slingshot. So, again it is easy to see how cowboy lingo is deeply steeped in Spanish culture and methods and therefore rich in Spanish and anglicized Spanish terms, because most everything derived from those early vaqueros of Spanish ancestry. Considerably more Spanish influence is of course still seen in the Mexican Charros. Charros have their own type of traditional horse show, and their contests involve not only the simple catching of bovine critters or horses, but also some rather fancy trick roping. After a lot of fancy swinging, the loop is dropped on an animal, or will all of a sudden stand upright in front of a horse galloping by, so it is caught.

The rope must be treated carefully, coiled neatly when not in use, and kinks are to be avoided. Most ropers will carry it attached to their saddle on the off side, respectively the side where their free hand is. There are many different catches, which are mastered by top ropers.

In today’s North American contests, there are several different events, all timed events except for breed shows:


Here, a calf is being roped around the neck by a single rider, is stopped, thrown, and tied with a string called a pigging string . The calf is thus immobilized, while the roper’s horse will keep the rope tight all through the process. Horses not only need to be fast, but must rate the calf to give the roper the best chance for a catch. All this takes place in a matter of seconds. The calf gets a head start, but the horse explodes after it, bringing the roper in position within a couple of seconds or little more.


(Heading and Heeling) This is an event in which two riders (ropers) go after a steer in the shortest possible time, one, the header, to catch the head or horns of the steer, then pulling him over so the other one, the heeler, can catch him around the hind legs. As soon as he does that, the heading horse turns around, and the steer is stretched out between the two ropers, and thus immobilized. Again, horses must not only be quick, but rate the steer, in order for the ropers to get a good chance for their catches.


This may well be the most difficult task. A single roper shoots after a steer, ropes him around the horns, after which lets his rope hang relatively loose around the off side of the steer. He then spurs on his horse to overtake the steer at an angle. This causes his rope to tighten around the caught animal, and when the rope is taut and the horse reaches the right point, the steer is toppled over and hits the ground flat.


This is an event in which a single roper catches a steer like the header in team roping, then he lets his horse sit down and hold the steer, thus stopping him. This is a class offered by the American Paint Horse Association as a substitute for a heading and heeling class, if the show management so desires. The horse is judged on its manners behind the barrier, its speed to get the roper to the steer, its ability to rate the steer, and to stop straight and turn the steer to face the horse. There is a limit for this class of one minute, or two loops (two attempts to catch the steer), whichever comes first


This is a timed event that is offered at breed shows and is available only for amateur and youth competitors. A calf is being roped, but the rope itself is attached to the horn only by a string, which will break free when the calf hits the end of the rope. A bright, highly visible cloth flag is attached to that end of the rope, so it is easy to see when the calf has been stopped and the rope broken loose. There is a limit of one minute or two loops, whichever comes first.

The steer is roped.
Single Steer Roping - showing the rope hanging on the outside, and the horse running in position to throw the steer.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com. Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

Other HSC pages of information about Western Style Riding and Roping:

Western Style Riding
Cow Horse
Western Horsemanship / Western Equitation
Western Pleasure
Western Riding
Western Trail Class
Cutting Horse
Reined Cow Horse / Working Cowhorse
Ranch Horse Competition
Calf Roping
Team Roping
Team Penning
Barrel Racing
Pole Bending
Halter Horses
Showmanship at Halter

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