Montana horseman Randy Rieman believes proper preparation builds a foundation for a calmer, quieter and more capable rope horse. Here, Rieman shares seven exercises to help you prime your roping prospect before embarking on the real deal.
When horsemen describe a great rope horse, they often talk about how he launches out of the box, flies to the cow’s hip, sinks his hocks in the dirt and stops hard. It’s such admirable athleticism and speed that sometimes allows for a horse’s temperament to be overlooked. Along with greatness, it’s also common to see horses at world-class shows or rodeos rearing in the box, throwing their head, leaning on the bit, breaking to the left and flirting with disaster.
Montana horseman Randy Rieman believes that practical, non-adversarial and thorough preparation creates a calmer, easier-to-handle rope horse, whether he’s aimed for rodeo, ranch ropings, breed shows or the branding pen at your neighbor’s cow-calf operation. Decades of ranch roping and cow work have taught Rieman that a quiet, level-headed horse makes the roper’s job easier; and by the same token, a quiet, level-headed roper makes the horse’s job easier.
“It’s not my job to make the horse stop, back, load in the trailer or switch leads,” Rieman says. “It’s my job to get him ready to do that. Then the doing is easy.”
Before he even begins swinging a loop, Rieman makes sure his horse is relaxed and confident in the basics of stopping, turning and changing gaits.
“It’s important for any horse to trust the rider and remain relaxed when introduced to new things,” Rieman says. “A lot can go wrong when a rope gets involved, so get the horse soft and willing before you add a rope to the mix.”
Once the horse is prepared for a rope, Rieman incorporates seven exercises that develop confidence, trust and an easy-going attitude from the first loop.
Go From the Ground Up
Without proper exposure, a horse can panic when he becomes tangled in a rope. To help youngsters and rope prospects become more comfortable with the feel of the rope, Rieman introduces it in a controlled environment.
Working from the ground with a lead rope, he lightly rubs and loosely wraps and unwraps it around the horse’s legs. Eventually, he places a catch rope loop around the legs in various positions without tightening the loop, allowing the horse to move until it can accept it while quietly standing. The trainer also works with other objects, such as a tarp, around the feet and legs.
“The word ‘desensitized’ get overused,” Rieman says. “It’s more about educating the horse than desensitizing. I don’t want him to be dull or insensitive, I just want him to have his emotions under control. Then, if things go south somewhere down the line, he has a better chance of not abandoning ship.”
Use Two Legs, One Hand
Young horses need a lot of direction from the rider’s hands, feet and seat. But before uncoiling a rope, practice riding your horse one-handed. More importantly, begin guiding more with your legs and seat, allowing your body to become the dominant aid and your hand to become a secondary support. With your legs as the primary aid, it’s less likely your horse will become confused when your hands are busy with coils and a loop.
“Right from the first ride on my colts, I’m trying to get them hooked on to my leg cues,” Rieman says. “The reins are there to support what my body is asking the horse to do.
“Before you start roping, it’s vital to get both ends and the middle of the horse working for you. It’s not enough that he goes forward. He’s got to have some lateral movement. It’s safer if the rider can move his horse’s hips and shoulders where he wants them. You can practice by side-passing, two-tracking or opening gates.”
Instead of introducing the rope when the horse is fresh, Rieman first goes through a normal training session or for a long ride.
“I’m going to give him a chance to remember the things we’ve been working on and get soft and compliant,” he says.
Be it a short rope, the tail of your mecate or just your arm, the horse needs to become comfortable with the motion of something swinging above its head. When you swing a loop from his back for the first time, keep in mind that the horse is seeing, hearing and feeling something brand new, Rieman says.
Easing in at a relaxed walk, begin with a steady progression of rubbing the coils on the horse’s hips, shoulders and neck, building a loop, touching his legs with it, then lifting your loop into the air. Smoothly make a revolution or two, and assess his reaction. If he’s comfortable, you can then vary the speed of the swing, Rieman says.
Take a Time Out
One of the most important factors in training a rope horse, particularly training one to have a calm, sensible attitude, is making the act of roping less stressful. Which is why in the early stages of introducing a rope, Rieman often doesn’t swing his loop until his horse has worked hard at other tasks.
“When my horse is wanting a break, I let him walk and relax while I swing my rope,” Rieman says. “Then I’ll park near the roping dummy and throw a few shots. He’s been working hard, and now all he has to do is stand and relax while I swing my rope.”
Not only does this help the horse associate the rope with relaxing, but it also teaches him that a swinging loop doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to hustle.
Tow the Line
When Rieman first tosses a loop horseback, he pitches off to the side and behind the driveline, encouraging the horse to move forward if he is going to move away. As the horse becomes more comfortable, Rieman starts to pitch in front.
As the horse progresses, Rieman begins to throw the rope forward and ride over it, making counterclockwise bends so that the rope touches the horse on his right hip as he drags it.
“I want to expose the horse to the rope in each direction, letting both eyes see it moving, and allowing it to lay against each hip until the horse gets really comfortable with it,” he says.
Pull Some Weight
Once the horse is comfortable with the feel of the rope and dragging an empty loop, Rieman attaches a lightweight object, such as a tire or a small log. It’s easier for the horse to succeed in this exercise if he starts with just enough weight to feel it. As he progresses, more weight can be added.
Rieman begins by pulling the object forward, backward and in circles, causing the rope to rub at all angles on the horse’s body, preparing him for the feel of a squirming calf. Another way to simulate the pull of a live animal is to pony another horse.
“Leading another horse also helps the rider ride with one hand on the reins,” Rieman says. “You can also practice your dallies with the lead rope as you go.”
Rieman also suggests practicing dallying as much as possible, with whatever rope or string is available, be it saddle strings, the tail of your rope or a pigging string, until you can smoothly and safely dally without looking down.
“Catching an animal is the easy part,” Rieman says. “Handling the horse, rope and calf on the end of your twine is the harder part. The better you take your dallies, the more chance for success.”
Introduce a Cow
Once your horse is calm and confident with the rope and the sensation of movement associated with the rope, it’s time to introduce the most important element: the cow. Rope prospects need exposure to cattle, and to learn to rate and change direction with the animal, Rieman says.
“Spend some time just getting your horse to track a calf or a cow around,” Rieman says. “Show him that the path of least resistance is tracking a cow.”
Once a horse is comfortable and confident with these skills, he’s ready to ease into the feel of a live calf on the saddle horn. Rieman suggests starting with a small, gentle calf and using a breakaway hondo until horse and rider gain experience and confidence. However, in the beginning catching is less important than good positioning, Rieman says.
“You don’t want to throw at anything until you’re in a position to be successful,” Rieman says. “Take your time, get in the right position, and then make your attempt. If you don’t catch, no big deal—you get to shoot again. It doesn’t take a horse long to learn where he needs to be if he gets the chance.”
Article originally published in the January 2010 issue of Western Horseman.