How Team Roping Horses Are Judged

How Team Roping Horses Are Judged

In the box and at the barrier, run and rate, set and handle, then face and stop all play a part in how a rope horse is judged at horse shows.

horse showing team roping heading (Credit: Journal)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horseman Rick Rosaschi with Larri Jo Starkey

If you look at the roping scorecard that the judges use, you can see that it’s broken into sections, called maneuvers. Each maneuver has value, and paying attention to each part of your run can improve your score.

The main thing to think about is a clean, calm, consistent run. As soon as you finish a part, no matter how it went, prepare for the next part. Don’t worry about the last step. The judges will plus or minus you for each maneuver. If you get minused for a maneuver in the box, you might get plussed for every other maneuver, so your score could still add up positively.

I think it’s important for ropers to understand the elements they’re being judged on.

Before the Run

For a complete run, you need to pay attention to having everything correct. That includes your tack. It should fit your horse correctly and be within the rules. That includes everything from making sure your rope is ready to being sure your bit fits AQHA guidelines.

If you’re not sure, check the rulebook and ask an AQHA Professional Horseman for help.

Another thing you want to pay attention to is making sure you have the correct horse. Your horse shouldn’t be too much for you. A non-pro rider shouldn’t try to start a young horse. That rider should find a seasoned horse or take the young horse to a trainer. It’s OK to learn together, but the rider will need someone to fix the horse as they go.

I can’t stress enough that people need to get help.

A lot of times, if a rider just stands around shooting the breeze behind the chutes, he can ask questions and the answer might click for him. If one explanation doesn’t work, ask another roper. Sometimes just a different way of saying the same thing will help advice click.

Maneuver 1: Box and Barrier

In team roping, heading horses are scored on their behavior in the box and how well they handle the barrier. Heeling horses are just scored on their behavior in the box.

The automatic penalties and reasons for disqualifications are listed on the judge’s cards. How the heading horse handles the barrier can determine his eventual placing, since breaking the barrier is an automatic five-point penalty. Jumping the barrier is an automatic two-point penalty.

When the horse enters the box, he should be flat-footed and quiet. He should also leave the box the same way, flat and quiet. The horse is judged on how well he stands in the box, whether he is quiet or disobedient.

Maneuver 2: Running and Rating

The good thing about a team-roping run is that the pattern is always the same.

When your horse is running to the steer, he should be running in a straight line. When he meets the steer and adjusts his speed, this is “rating,” and that is the time to rope.

Each roper’s position is going to be different based on what is comfortable to each roper. Some may prefer to be wider or farther back, depending on what is comfortable.

Your heading horse should be roughly 3 feet to the left of the steer, but in the position that lets you rope best, based on your preferences.

Often looking at the base of a steer’s horns will help a roper gauge whether they need to move their horse over or not. With practice, the horse will eventually find that hole.

The heeling horse doesn’t have to worry about getting out quite as quickly, but position becomes more important as does his quiet willingness to run. He should be 10 to 12 feet to the right of the steer while running.

Maneuver 3: Setting and Handling

The heading horse is judged on setting and handling, while the heeling horse is judged on position.


When a header ropes the steer, he needs to break the steer down and keep him under control. The horse should stay on his back end, keeping the steer controlled and leading him so that the heeler will have a good shot at the heels. The steer should go into a hopping motion - not too fast and not too slow. Ultimately, the goal of the header should be to maintain the speed of the steer. If the header dramatically changes the speed of the steer, it is difficult for the heeler to get a good shot because he will have to re-adjust or re-rate to the new pace.


In heeling, when you get to “the corner” of the run, you’ll want to stay to the left of the steer as you turn. Your horse will start rating a little sooner running down the pen.

Some non-pros make the mistake of trying to get right behind the steer. That puts them out of position. It can also be a dangerous place if the steer trips or slows quickly.

I focus on the steer’s hocks, and my eyes tell my brain where I need to move my horse to deliver my loop.

Maneuver 4: Facing and Stop


When the header sees the heeler dally, it is time to cue the horse right for a modified rollback and turn to face the steer.


When the heeler delivers the throw, his horse should lift his shoulders and start stopping.

A calmness through the whole run is one of the most important things.

Judges watch until the riders move forward and un-dally. Even after you have roped your steer, you are still being judged on well your horse comes back to you.

Learning how the event is scored in a horse show can be the most helpful tool when practicing. It makes the practice more purposeful. Rather than focusing on how many times a roper catches, it is important to improve all areas of the run, from the box to the face. This will improve horsemanship and ultimately lead to a better score at the show.