For several months I have been writing about “team roping” as my new photography project. The other day I was asked, “What the heck is team roping anyway?” Sorry to have skipped over that basic point- Let me explain. Team Roping, or “ropin” as it’s most often referred to, is the fastest growing equestrian sport in the United States. It is a timed event where two riders on two horses each throwing a rope try to catch the horns and hind feet of a running steer as quickly as possible.
Now, let me tell you what it is really like….
Have you ever played baseball? Yes, baseball. Have you played it or even watched it? If you have then you can begin to imagine what it is like to rope a steer. First imagine yourself as a pitcher, a pitcher trying to throw a ball into a very small “strike zone”. Imagine a strike zone about half the size of a major league baseball strike zone. Now that you have that image in mind, add the fact that your strike zone is always moving. Sound easy?
To a team roper the “strike zone” is where the thrown rope needs to land. If you are the “header” your strike zone is the bobbing horns of a running steer. If you are the “heeler” your strike is to catch in one loop the hopping hind legs of the same steer. In either case, if you are the header or the heeler, your strike zone is not only small and constantly moving, but also moving very erratically – generally running away from you as fast as possible but it may also run right, left, bolt forward like a bat out of hell, or even in a very rare case trip and fall down. Now you are beginning to understand the challenge before you!
Do not despair. The good news is that you are actually allowed to chase the strike zone! Yep, you may go in hot pursuit toward the target. However, you must give chase from the back of a running horse who also has a brain, adrenaline coursing in it’s blood, and a desire to turn right, left or even not at all.
Lucky for you, your horse is well trained and will help you get close to the strike zone. Not always the same distance away mind you (think movable strike zone and movable pitchers mound), but close enough so that the timing and the accuracy of the throw are now up to you. Unfortunately, even if you get in the right position, and you execute a perfect throw (a strike) from the back of your running horse, you still have to rely on your ropin partner to complete his or her throw in time with yours.
The reality is you have 5 brains (some smaller than others, and I’m not saying who’s is the smallest), 16 pairs of legs, 4 hands, 2 ropes, all moving and reacting at the same time and you have only a few seconds to chase down and rope that steer. The very best in the world can do it in under 5 seconds – the extremely good are trying to hit it consistently in 6 or less. Some days you are happy to have a clean catch on the head and heels at all. The key to becoming a successful team roper is consistency. Day after day you focus your mind, bring all those running legs and whirling ropes into harmony and you throw your strike, some days faster than others, but you consistently hit your mark.
The more I watch and learn the more respect I have for the men and women who are able to accomplish this feat with skill under tremendous pressure. A team roper trains with his partner day in and day out, year in and year out to perfect this sport. Lots of money – or at least whatever money you have – and all your time are invested in horses, ropes, training and travel. A roping team may drive all night to a roping event after months of preparation and it all comes down to six tense seconds. Six seconds – that is about the amount of time it took you to read this paragraph! At the end of that ridiculously small slice of time you will either leave with a paycheck and some glory, or you’ll leave empty handed and discouraged, wondering if you have enough money to put gas in the truck to get you back home.
Team ropin, it’s an ever shifting dance, a set of skills, an addiction, a gamble, and at it’s very best an act of magnificent grace and timing. It’s a sport where teams of men, women, daughters and sons, can compete equally- two horses, two riders, two ropes, one steer and one clock. Advantage to the quickest, pure and simple.
Makes pitching a baseball seem kinda simple doesn’t it?