Mike Major: Tips for roping during ranch horse competitions
Versatility Ranch Horse competitions are gaining popularity, especially with riders who don’t necessarily ride horses for a living, but are enamored with the cowboy lifestyle. For many of these competitors, roping is the most challenging part of ranch horse competitions and the part where many points can be lost as quickly as one can throw a loop.
World champion Versatility Ranch Horse competitor, horse trainer, cowboy and former professional roper Mike Major of Fowler, CO, says it’s important to have a plan and set yourself up for success when roping in ranch horse competition.
In the American Quarter Horse Association’s (AQHA) working ranch horse class, part of the Versatility Ranch Horse competition, the rider must track, rope and stop the cow. Failure to catch on the first loop is a three-point penalty, and failure to catch on the second loop is a five-point penalty. An exhibitor with a lot of trouble in the reining and cow work portions of the class could easily beat an exhibitor with a good run who doesn’t catch the cow.
“You can lose more points in the roping than you ever can stopping or doing turnarounds,” Major said. “Yet everybody works on stopping and turning around, and nobody wants to work on the roping.”
It’s important that the rider already be comfortable roping at home and can rope the cow from any position in the arena or on the cow.
“Practice being able to rope in any place,” Major explained. “You want to feel comfortable with the rope in your hand. You need to feel comfortable no matter where the cow is or where the horse is at on the cow. You need to be comfortable swinging your loop and be able to throw it any direction you need to.”
To accomplish that, Major suggests extensive roping practice at home. But, once in the show pen, Major has a way of setting up the cow to increase his chances of catching.
Set for success
To set up the cow properly to rope, Major explained, after making the two turns, he begins to build a loop and lets his horse trot after the cow.
“Then I am going to bring it right through that corner like I was going to take it down the fence again,” he said. “I want to be on the edge of that cow so that cow will be looking at me out of its right eye. I am going to be ready to rope and I am going to be right to that cow’s butt by the time I get to the middle of the pen. Usually, when I come in right behind that cow, the cow’s head is going to come off to the right side and his head is stuck out there where I can rope it real easy every time.”
Major sets the cow up as though he were going down the fence to make a left turn, but instead of driving the horse past the cow, he rides on the cow’s right hip until the cow turns her head to the right and begins coming off the fence. That’s when Major is going to rope it. The key, he says, is controlling the cow’s eye.
“I can rope a cow, coming right up behind it,” he said. “But a lot of times, that cow’s head will be going back and forth looking at you out of one eye and then the other, so when I am in position, I have to wait ’til that cow’s head is in position or wait until it’s just fixing to come to the right, and sometimes you run out of arena. There have been times when that cow’s head was right there and I thought, ‘I am going to rope it,’” he said. “But then the cow looked at me out of its left eye, and its head moved, and I missed.”
By driving the cow away from the end where it wants to be and using the fence to his advantage, Major is able to control the cow’s head. “Ninety percent of the time when I step in behind it, that cow’s going to come off the fence, and then it’s just like trapping it. Instead of having to really get a lot of dip in your rope, you can just throw a big loop over there, and the cow just runs into it,” Major explained.
It’s important to be ready to rope when the cow presents the opportunity, Major stressed.
“That cow is going to give you about six strides where his head is over there,” he said. “A lot of people will sit back here with their rope, then they’ll run to the cow, start swinging, and all the set-up that they’ve done is blown. When you start kicking your horse up there in position, you need to be swinging hard so when that cow comes off the fence, you’re ready to rope.”
Major always swings his rope when he begins the roping portion of the class.
“I am going to swing my loop right when I take it down and make sure it feels balanced and feels good,” Major said. “A lot of people won’t swing their rope all day until they are ready to rope, and then it feels bad to them and they wish they had a different balance to it. But it’s too late then.”
Major acknowledges that there are always exceptions, and the cow might dictate how it’s going to happen more than the rider. Occasionally, the cow will come off the fence and turn hard to the right, which can be challenging. If the rope gets up over your head when going to the right, Major said, practice swinging the rope while loping circles to the right.
“If you swing your rope and get used to roping to the right, left, whatever, your muscle memory is just the same no matter which way you’re going,” he said. “Wherever a cow is, you ought to be able to swing a loop and rope.”
Another possibility is that the cow gets numb and doesn’t want to come off the fence.
“If the cow just stays on the fence, my swing changes,” he said. “When one’s coming off the fence, it’s more of a sidearm, I am just going to throw a loop across there that’s just going to let that cow run into it. When I get up behind the cow, I am just going to put a lot more dip in my rope.”
Major emphasizes that he prefers to go to the right, in part because if the cow doesn’t come off the fence, he still has a shot at roping it.
“If you’re right handed and you’re going counter-clockwise around the arena, the fence is going to be in the way.”
Finally, once Major gets the cow roped, he jerks the slack and tracks up on the cow until the horse and cow are facing the same direction.
“I don’t want my horse to take that jerk coming off to the side,” Mike said. “I want my horse straight behind that cow and then I’ll stop it, so the jerk on my horse will be straight forward, which allows for a better stop. (A jerk from the side) will throw him off balance.”
If the first loop doesn’t work out, Major says it’s important to set it up again. “That’s my best chance at getting it roped,” he said, “so I will keep my horse tracking up to it and set it up the same way again.”
– adapted from an AQHA release