Horsemanship (Down the Line, Stran Smith)

My granddad once said, “The trouble with the modern calf roper is most of them couldn’t pen their calves unless they had a return alley.”

My friend, Shay Good, once made the comment, “I might not be the best cowboy that’s ever roped, but I promise I’ve been in the same pasture with them.” Fortunately for us, Shay and I both were born into it. I didn’t start roping until I was sixteen but being raised on a ranch, I’d been riding since I was two. I can remember being about eight or ten and riding a big horse we had that my parents were sure wouldn’t run off with me. When riding got a little boring I would get my horse into a lope and get off while he was loping. Soon I was bored with that and next we started jumping mesquite trees where I would get off while my horse was in the air. So when roping calves, getting off was always the easy part for me.

There’s a saying that one must learn to ride before they can learn to rope. There are a lot of people who are trying to learn three things at one time: riding, roping and how to be a calf roper.

To be a successful calf roper you have to be a horseman, and a good horseman never really quits learning. The mechanics of what makes a horse work is basically the same in reiners, calf horses, barrel horses and so on. It’s been a tremendous help to me to ride and watch horses and their trainers in other disciplines. I assure you all good horses are broke the right way.

Besides being able to ride, a big part of horsemanship, is taking care of and being in tune with your horse. The guy that’s winning the most isn’t necessarily the one that ropes the best – it’s the guy who is the best team with his horse. I use the analogy of a rope; a five-ply rope is much stronger than a two-ply rope.

I guarantee I spend five times more time on Topper’s well being than my own. When it comes time to eat, without question he eats first. Whatever it takes for him to be healthy and in shape is what we do. Treating a horse like a partner, with that kind of importance, is essential to win and be competitive.

Believe it or not, a horse knows when you have confidence in him. I’ve had horses that weren’t necessarily the best I’ve owned, but when I stepped up on them I felt like Superman. Horses sense that confidence and it makes a difference.

It’s easy to feel like Superman when I’m riding Topper but I have to be careful because he’s twenty-four years old. Even though he gives me that confidence, my business side has to override my emotions. It’s not the three runs I want to make on him that concern me – it’s the eighteen hours in the trailer necessary to make those runs.

Treating your horse well and taking good care of him is an attitude that’s easy to have when he helps make your living. But even if that’s not the case and you rope as a hobby, your horse is still your only partner and you can’t rope or win without him.

For those who didn’t grow up horseback and need to improve your riding, put your rope down and work on it. Spend some time riding your horse and get some wet saddle blankets. Real cowboys are horseback all day and constantly doing something. If you don’t have room to ride, haul your horse somewhere where you can ride through gates and even gather cattle, or get a part time job that requires you to ride. You’ll be surprised at the difference it will ultimately make in your roping.

I’ve always half jokingly said that I wasn’t allowed to carry a rope to the pasture until I’d made the finals a couple of times.