Survey Says “Where Does a Team Roper’s Riding Time Go?”

Clay O'Brien Cooper with a rope on a horse

Team ropers’ best estimates of how they spend their time horseback and why they might spend it that way.

By FRAN DEVEREUX SMITH, originally published in the April 1999 issue of Western Horseman

Mention riding and roping nowadays, and team roping comes to mind as often as ranch work. Almost a dying sport 10 years ago, heading and heeling has rebounded in a big way. In fact, the United State’s Team Roping Championships’ National Finals of Team Roping drew 5,483 teams to compete in Oklahoma City last fall. It seemed a good place for an informal survey. The question: “Do you spend more time fitting and training your rope horse, or more time actually roping?”

The 48 team ropers questioned were asked to give a percentage breakdown that reflects how their time is spent horseback. Not all the ropers were comfortable in applying percentage figures to their riding programs, but gave their best guesses anyway. Here’s how they responded along with some of their comments.

The Percentage Breakdown
About a fourth of the ropers (almost 26 percent) estimated they divide their riding time evenly, spending half of it fitting and training horses and the remainder actually roping. The 50-50 split was the most popular response.

The second-largest number of responses (almost 13 percent) came from those who roped 75 percent of the time and schooled or fitted horses the remaining 25 percent. But the equation reversed with the third most popular response, which accounts for almost 10 percent of those surveyed. These horsemen estimated that roping took only 40 percent of their time while working their horses in other ways accounted for 60 percent.

A small but select group, about 6 percent of those questioned, use their horses for ranch work at home on a regular basis. Of necessity, these people fit and train horses and rope cattle while they work. Roping time for them ranged from an estimated 25 to 40 percent of the total riding time, which meant they trained and legged up their horses a corresponding 60 to 75 percent of the time.

Clay O'brien Cooper with rope riding on horse
Even the best don’t spend all their time roping. Multiple world champion heeler Clay O’Brien Cooper spends a fair amount of time fitting and maintaining his rope horse to ensure that he responds consistently and well.

Beyond that, survey results weren’t so obvious. The remaining 45 percent of the ropers questioned gave tit-for-tat responses. For example, for every roper who spent 80 percent of his time training and 20 percent roping, another roper responded that he trained 20 per­cent of the time and roped 80 per­cent. So there was no clear con­sensus of opinion for just less than half the ropers-anything goes.

Insights …
Some ropers also offered a few comments about why their riding time is used as it is.

Texas roping producer Booger Barter commented that his schedule didn’t allow for a lot of training.  “And it shows-definitely,” he admitted with a grin. “You should spend about half the time training on your horses-along with the roping. I probably spend about 90 percent of the time roping.”

Mississippi heeler Don Kevin’s equally honest response: “I spend maybe 20 percent of the time fit­ting my horse, and 80 percent roping.” After a moment, he added, “That’s probably opposite of what it ought to be.”

That being the case, another producer, North American Team Roping Association Executive Director Chris Davis, evidently does what he ought to do. Ac­cording to Chris, he spends more time riding (80 percent) than he does roping. But, he was quick to explain, that’s because much of his riding time is devoted to starting colts or preparing young horses for competitive roping.

Heeler Kyle Roundy of New Mexico commented that the more finished the horse for roping, the less training time is required. “I might,” he said, “spend 90 percent of the time working a horse on different positions, on leads, or teaching him what he needs to do. After he is trained and knows what I want, I might spend only half the time working him and rope half the time.”

“All my head horses are young,” explained another roper, “so I just play with them. I jog them a lot, and I turn them out a lot too. I do have,” he added, “one old horse who is 18. I try to swim him and baby him as much as possible. It saves a lot of wear and tear on the legs with one that age.

“I try,” he continued, “to (practice) rope on my horses only when they need it. If a horse is working good, then after two or three steers, I score a few, and I’m done with him.”

Arkansas roper Barry Kilbreath pointed out that a roper’s level of expertise also can affect the amount of training required with a horse.

“I’m a #3 heeler, so it doesn’t take as good a horse for me, probably, as it does for a #5, #6, or #7 roper. My horse is good for the type horse I need—at my level of roping.”

Seven-time world champion header Jake Barnes admittedly ropes “quite a bit. But,” he added, “I try not to overdo that on a horse.” He also was more specific than most with his percentages. “I probably spend 20 percent of the time conditioning my horses and 40 percent training, working on the fundamentals.”

Kenny Drake, Sarah, Okla., said he, too, spends much of his time roping, but qualified his response by adding, “We do exercise our horses quite a bit, too, because it’s necessary. You can’t get a horse ready in the roping pen. He has to have outside riding.”

… and Honest Answers
A couple of world-class bull riders—who also happen to enjoy team roping—take a bit different approach from Drake’s.

“My horse’s get exercised roping.” said Denny Flynn, one of the most competent and competitive profes­sional bull riders from the mid- 1970s through the mid-’80s. “That way, we do both ( exercising and roping) at the same time, and we both work out at the same time.” Flynn, who now produces USTRC events in his home state of Arkansas, also confessed with a grin, “As old as I am, I don’t do much exercising other than roping.”

Another bull riding legend takes much the same approach: “My horse gets fit and exercised on the way to the steer,” Tuff Hedeman laughed. Then he added, “I don’t have much time to ride and train or exercise a horse, which is why I have the kind of horse I have. She’s finished. When you saddle her up, you know she’s going to work; she’s all heart.

“I don’t,” he continued, “have the luxury of being able to ride and rope every day. I’d love to.” Although while in high school, Hedeman spent more time roping than riding bulls, he explained, “Team roping now, for me, is more recreation and hobby than anything.”

Even so, he looked as focused when backing his rope horse into the box in Oklahoma City as he does pulling his bull rope. There is, however, a difference between recreational team roping and riding bulls professionally, which Hedeman pointed out with another grin. “I’m tired of being the chump at the roping every week. I’d like to win something one of these days. I love to rope, but certainly I’m not as successful as I’d like to be. But I know why that is. I haven’t devoted the time that it takes to get good.”

There you have it—team ropers’ best estimates of how they spend their time horseback and why they might spend it that way. On the one hand, if you divide your time equally between roping and training or fitting, you’re in good company. On the other hand, if you exercise your rope horse on the way to the steer, you’re still in pretty good company too. It’s your call.

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