Roping a Cow in Versatility Ranch Horse, Part 1

When learning to rope a cow from horseback, it’s best to begin on the ground with a still target and practice, practice, practice.

Training your cow horse for roping can be challenging, but these tips should help ease the transition. Journal photo

Roping and stopping a cow is part of nearly all ranch horse competitions, including AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse competition. But for those who haven’t been roping all their life, roping a cow in competition is a daunting, if not seemingly impossible, feat. However, successful Versatility Ranch Horse exhibitor and trainer Lavert Avent says it’s doable for anyone who is willing to work at it.

From the Ground Up

Lavert says it’s best to start on the ground: “I don’t think there’s a person around that doesn’t need to rope the dummy.” Using the right rope and dummy is important. The first tip? Don’t use a brand-new rope, Lavert says.

“A lot of people go buy a brand-new rope, and that’s the last thing they need,” Lavert says. “Go find a team roper or rancher that’s got a worn-out rope, and that’s what beginners need to rope with. They’ll think it’s terrible because it has no life to it, but when they throw it, it’s not going to hit and bounce right back to them. Brand-new ropes will bounce everywhere.”

Lavert suggests a larger diameter rope that has a little more weight. Sure, it might make your arm tired quicker, but it’s going to stay where it’s thrown.

“Get a full 3/8-inch or 7/16-inch scant rope that has got some weight to it,” Lavert says. He prefers extra-soft nylon, but many ropers use poly ropes. He also avoids any rope longer than 30 feet.

“If you can’t rope well, anything longer is just going to cause trouble,” Lavert says. “To me, two to three coils in my hand is enough. More than that is just more you’ve got to hang on to and figure out. A lot of people say longer ropes are more to hang on to if you miss your dally. Well, I would say ‘Learn how to dally.’ It’s preference, but longer ropes can just get in the way.”

The type of dummy can also make a difference, Lavert says. He prefers to simply use a bale of hay. Many people use a bale of hay with a plastic calf head stuck in it.

“I don’t like to use a head,” Lavert says. “A lot of people will stick that head in where it’s sticking nearly straight up and down; well, there are not very many cattle that run with their heads straight up in the air. If you are going to use a calf dummy head, stick it straight in from the end.”

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Regardless, just roping a bale of hay works well, Lavert says, and most people who have horses have a bale of hay around. He recommends putting a marker, like a stick, or piece of tape, about a foot and a half from the end of the bale. This creates a target, designed to replicate where the shoulder of the calf would be.

“That’s your target,” Lavert says. “When you throw it, watch where the hondo hits, and see if it hits where you’re aiming. The hondo should hit the piece of tape or target you are using, then the tip of the rope ought to hit the ground in front of the bale as it comes across.”

Lavert recommends roping the bale as much as possible.

“When I was a kid, my dad wouldn’t let me carry a rope on a horse until I wore it out on the dummy,” Lavert says. “Do you know how long it takes to wear a rope out on a dummy? A long time.”

Common mistakes Lavert sees riders make include aiming too far forward on the cow’s head, not getting enough dip in the rope and not keeping the elbow up – all of which can be improved on the dummy.

Get the Swing of It

“More or less, rope the bale of hay until you can rope the bale of hay well, catching every time,” Lavert says. “Then get on the horse and rope the bale. Swing the rope enough to get your elbow and shoulder built up, so you don’t just swing it a couple times and your arm gives out and you give up.”

Once riders are comfortable roping the bale on foot and roping the bale horseback standing still, Lavert suggests riding around and swinging the rope while moving.

“Get your arm to where you can go around the arena, swinging a rope and never have to quit ’cuz your arm’s tired,” Lavert says.

Swing the rope at a walk, trot, lope and go in circles. It’s important to be able to swing and continue to steer and handle the horse without thinking only about swinging.

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Lavert points out, “When you go to a roping or a rodeo, everyone is out there warming up their horses, swinging their ropes. It’s more habit for them than anything, but it’s a good idea for everyone who wants to rope.”

Once riders can swing and ride, it’s time to try to rope something while moving. If possible, a slow cow is best, Lavert says, but more important is a seasoned horse that will track and knows where to be.

“You need a horse that will rate and track and put you there, where you have a chance to rope,” Lavert says. “You don’t want to worry about guiding your horse when you are trying to worry about roping.”

At this point, Lavert encourages the use of a breakaway rope because “in case something goes wrong, it will turn loose.”

Lavert says, “Just track the cow around until you’re comfortable, then rope and rope and rope until your arm’s about to fall off, then keep roping.”

It’s best if the cow is moving slowly to start with, so Lavert says to track it until it slows some.

“If a cow is way out in front of you, go around the arena in the same track the cow made. If the cow’s going around the end, and you cut across the corner, all you’re doing is teaching that horse to drop his shoulder and drop into that cow. Take the same track the cow made to get there. That’s what I do on all my colts. It teaches them to keep their shoulders picked up and track that cow. I’ll just hit a trot and trot around behind them, and finally the cow will get tired and then we’ll be right behind it,” he says.

Lavert emphasizes that running the cow at top speed from the beginning won’t do anything but wind the horse up. Simply track the cow until all three (the cow, the horse and you) are relaxed, then try to rope.

Check back for Part 2 of this series, in which Lavert explains how to avoid getting discouraged and what to do when it’s time to actually stop a cow.