Ranch Trail Obstacles: The Drag

Ranch Trail Obstacles: The Drag

How to safely drag a log or object in ranch trail by taking a dally and demonstrating the horse’s ability to pull from the saddle horn.

RH The Drag

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal logo


 Story and Photos by Andrea Caudill

Rope skills are vital for a working cowboy. The rope is a tool in many aspects of the job, and thus is something that a rider must master when competing in Versatility Ranch Horse competition

One of the mandatory trail obstacles (except for youth) is a drag, which involves dragging an object by taking a dally and demonstrating the horse’s ability to pull from the saddle horn while obediently maneuvering a set pattern, like a circle or figure eight. 

This maneuver is mandatory because it provides a show ring demonstration of the ranch skills necessary for dragging a calf to the fire in the branding pen. 

The proper demonstration of these skills while on the ranch means that the branding happens in an efficient and safe way; the proper demonstration in the show ring gives a credit-earning score. 

AQHA Professional Horseman and Judge David Avery says that the score for a drag sequence comes from several different aspects. 

First and foremost, a rider must be able to handle the situation safely, and second, the horse must show the ability and willingness to do its job.

The rider, he says, must demonstrate his or her ability to handle the rope in a safe manner, and then to put themselves in position such that the situation remains controlled and safe. 

The horse must accept the rope around it, show a willingness and ability to pull from the horn, and a bright and alert expression that indicates his desire to do his job. 

If the rider is not following the proper safety protocols, someone – the rider, the horse or the ground crew – is liable to get hurt. 

“My biggest concern is safety,” David says. “I’ve actually stopped people (mid-class) if I see something about to happen. I don’t want anything to happen, and if I can prevent an accident, I’ll do it. 

“Practice this at home, so you know just exactly what you need to be doing,” he continues. “I always recommend that people who are interested in this event that are just getting involved, please go to a professional and take a lesson. Or just ask – the world is a library, and I encourage you to seek knowledge. Professionals are more than willing to answer a question.” 

An ideal practice drag should approximate the weight of a calf, about 125-225 pounds. 

The rope used should always be one intended for roping – not just any old hardware-store rope. 

“It’s so important to use a real rope,” David emphasizes. “You need a rope that has a twist to it, because the twist has gaps in it and that creates the bite to hold your rope after you’ve dallied to your saddle horn.”

It is also important to have some rubber on your saddle horn to help grip your rope when everything comes tight. 

How to Dally

The biggest part of a safe and credit-earning drag is the dally. 

To dally correctly, grab the rope, palm down, with your thumb underneath it (Photo 1). Your thumb should be pointing up in the air. You will wrap your rope counterclockwise around the base of the horn for one complete turn (Photos 2 and 3). Then bring your hand to your belly button, with your thumb pointing to your chin (Photo 4). 

“This is the safest way,” David says. “I can’t emphasize this enough. If you dally correctly, and anything were to happen, you can let go and it will come loose. This is the proper way to dally.”

Note in the photos that this horseman has the excess coils and reins safely in his left hand, and is able to adjust his rope or rein his horse as necessary.

how to wrap a dally on a saddle horn

Photo 1

how to wrap a dally on a saddle horn

Photo 2

how to wrap a dally on a saddle horn

Photo 3

how to wrap a dally on a saddle horn

Photo 4

What to Avoid When Dallying

The incorrect way to dally is taking the rope with your palm up and thumb down and dally backwards, which creates what is called a half-hitch. This upside-down dally will lock the rope in place and will not release. You are at a high risk of losing fingers, as well as getting into a dangerous situation if anything happens, because even if you let go, the rope will be locked in place as if tied-on. 

Measure the Distance

Another important element of the drag is the pulling distance. Once you’ve gotten the drag rope in your hands, step forward and keep track of your distance to the drag object. As a rule of thumb, you want about one to two horse lengths between you and your drag object.

If you dally your rope with the drag object too close, you are foremost endangering yourself and your horse, as well as those around you. Secondly, you’re losing points from the judge.

“This comes from the branding pen,” David explains. “You’re heeling the calf, and taking them to the fire to have the ground people do everything they need to do. If that calf is this close, you’re putting yourself in jeopardy. There’s so many things that can happen when you’re handling live cattle.”

In the show arena, imagine that log as a calf – if you dally too close, the risk of an undesirable situation sharply increases, so the judge will remove points due to that.

Once the horse moves off, the judge is looking for a horse that accepts the pull.

“When the horse feels the weight, you should see him almost drop a little bit, and pull with his front end against the breast collar,” David says. “That’s why it’s so important to have a breast collar on your saddle, so your saddle doesn’t pull back. You can see how strong the horse is pulling on the horn, with his front and back ends, simultaneously.

“I like to see a horse that is alert, but relaxed and comfortable. He should look like he enjoys his job.”



log drag distance

The drag object is too close to the
horse's heels, and is a safety hazard.


log drag distance

This shows a proper drag distance of
approximately one horse length.


Making the Turn

Once you’re dallied and dragging, patterns will often call for a turn, such as a figure eight to demonstrate the horse’s ability to handle the pull and the rope. When you go clockwise in the figure eight, the rope will pull laterally from the side of the saddle horn.

When you go counterclockwise, the rope will pull straighter across your leg and the horse’s hip.

“Be cautious not to get it under your horse’s tail,” David warns. “Make sure the rope is either up over the hip, or low enough where the hip is protecting the rope. It’s all about safety. Then you can manipulate your horse however need be (to complete the maneuver).”

Other Elements

If the pattern calls for a trot, the judge is looking for a horse that trots off smoothly and promptly, with a gait that is rhythmic and cadenced.

The horse ideally has a bright and alert expression, maneuvers easily in response to rein cues on its neck and pulls willingly.

When asked to turn and face the drag object, the horse should bend off the saddle horn in the middle.

“Turning on the haunches is preferable, but if the horse bends in the center and turns on the haunches and the forehand, that’s OK,” David says. “When he faces the object, he should be alert, ears forward and have a pleasant look on his face. I want to see whether he is alert, dull or interested in his job description. His job description is to be safe and to get the drag object to the proper point, so that when you do hang the rope up, everything is neat and orderly.”