While many individual-focused sports have many team-oriented concepts, team roping is the only team event in rodeo.
Like tie-down roping and saddle bronc riding, team roping grew out of the ranch chores of the past. Team roping evolved into a sport when a couple of cowboys somewhere, many years ago, turned a common ranching procedure into competition. The procedure, used to secure a steer so that he could be branded or doctored, is for two cowboys to rope the front and hind ends of a steer and stretch him between their horses.
Team Roping competition, now one of the six standard rodeo events, begins with a steer in a chute and ropers on horseback to either side. A run begins with the steer being released from the chute and given a head start down the arena (known as the barrier distance, about 10-15 feet), after which point the ropers may give chase. The first roper (the header), comes up on the steer’s left side and, throwing his loop, ropes the steer around the horns or neck. Next, the header secures the steer by wrapping the rope remaining in his hand around the saddle-horn (called dallying). After making his dallies, the header will then steer his horse to the left across the arena, pulling the steer behind him.
Cowboys originally developed this technique on working ranches when it was necessary to capture and restrain a full-grown animal that was too large to handle by a single man. Over the years as the sport has grown a numbering system was added to rate each ropers individual talent level. the numbers go from one to nine (1-9) for headers and one to ten (1-10) for heelers. Using these numbers a handicap systems (the subtraction of time) has been developed to even the competition. Today there are tens of thousands of amateur ropers who compete for millions of dollars in prize money.
There is specialized equipment used by team ropers:
- Rope – made of synthetic fibers, used to rope the steer, there are two kinds of ropes, one for the header (the person who ropes the head) and one for the healer (the person who ropes the legs). The header’s rope is usually 30 to 32 feet in length and is a lot softer (softer means the rope has more elasticity and flexibility). The heeler’s rope is usually 35 or 36 feet in length and is a lot stiffer (meaning it contains less flexibility and is more rigid to catch the feet).
- Horn wraps – protective wraps that go around the horns of the steer to prevent rope burns and reduce the risk of a horn breaking when roped.
- Roping gloves – To prevent rope burns on the hands of the riders
- Western saddle – Roping saddles have a particularly strong design with double rigging and other specialized features, including a rubber wrap around the saddle horn to keep the dally from slipping, and usually a wooden rawhide-covered saddle tree or a reinforced fiberglass tree.
- Bell boots and splint boots are placed on the horses legs for protection
Steers used for roping are moved from a holding corral through a series of narrow alleyways that lead to the roping arena. The alleyways allow the steers to be lined up in single file. Then, one at a time, a steer is moved into a chutewith spring-loaded doors in front and a solid gate behind, so that only one animal is released at a time. On each side of the chute is an area called the box that is big enough to hold a horse and rider. The header is on one side (usually the left, for a right-handed header) whose job is to rope the steer around the horns, then turn the steer so its hind legs can be roped by the “heeler”, who starts from the box on the other side of the chute.
A taut rope, called the barrier, runs in front of the header’s box and is fastened to an easily released rope on the neck of the steer of a designated length, used to ensure that the steer gets a head start. An electronic barrier, consisting of an electric eye connected to a timing device, is sometimes used in place of the barrier rope.
When the header is ready, he or she calls for the steer and an assistant pulls a lever, opening the chute doors. The freed steer breaks out running. When the steer reaches the end of the rope, the barrier releases. The header must rope the steer with one of three legal catches: a clean horn catch around both horns, a neck catch around the neck or a half-head catch around the neck and one horn. The header then takes a dally, a couple of wraps of the rope around the horn of the saddle. Some ropers have lost fingers in this event. Once the header has made the dally, the rider turns the horse, usually to the left, and the steer will follow, still running.
The heeler waits until the header has turned the steer. When he or she has a clear throw, the heeler throws a loop of rope under the running steer’s hind legs and catches them. As soon as the heeler also dallies tight, the header turns his or her horse to directly face the steer and heeler. Both horses back up slightly to stretch out the steer’s hind legs, immobilizing the animal. As soon as the steer is stretched out, an official waves a flag and the time is taken. The steer is released and trots off. There is a 5-second penalty for roping only one hind leg and a 10-second penalty for breaking the barrier if both occur on the same run then the penalties are added together for a total of 15 seconds added.
A successful professional-level team takes between 4 and 8 seconds to stretch the steer, depending on the length of the arena. At lower levels, a team may take longer, particularly if the heeler misses the first throw and has to try again. At higher levels, the header and the heeler are allowed only one throw each, if either misses, the team gets no score.
In some round-robin format competitions the header and heeler are awarded points for each catch instead of timing the run. This puts emphasis on consistency rather than speed. These types of competitions are often more attractive to newer ropers where they can focus on catching rather than having a fast run.
There are various organizations that sanction team roping events at local, regional and national levels. Some of the rules common to most groups include:
- Both riders must start from inside the box
- If the barrier is broken there is a 10-second or 5-second penalty depending on organization
- If the Heeler catches only one leg there is a 5-second penalty
- The Heeler cannot throw unless the head of the steer is turned.
- The header has three possible legal catches:
- Both horns
- One horn and the nose (half-head)
- The neck
- Any other head catch is considered illegal.
A modern rope is usually made of a blend of nylon and poly fibers, though some classic styles are still made of rawhide. Most synthetic ropes are generally quite stiff at the time of purchase, but come in various grades. For beginners, headers start with an extra soft (xs) or an extra, extra soft (xxs) rope. Heelers usually also start with a harder rope. Ropes come in a number of different variations of stiffness. from softest to stiffest there is the extra extra soft (xxs), extra soft (xs), soft (s), medium soft (ms), medium (m), hard medium (hm), and medium hard (mh).
Headers swing their loops overhead in a smooth, flat motion, aim for the back of the steer’s head and release the loop. When the roper releases, he or she is to stop the hand open, flat, and palm down at the point where the loop is thrown. Heelers use a different technique, a right-handed heeler will twirl the loop on the left side of the rider’s body, always keeping the tip of the loop on the left side so that when the loop is thrown, it will go under the steer. Heeling is all about timing; the tip of the loop has to be at its lowest point as the steer’s legs are coming forward. The lay of the loop is also very important; it should stand up against the steer’s legs with the bottom loop on the ground so the steer will jump right into it.