Training Rope Horses Rope-Broke Lessons

Training Rope Horses: ‘Rope-Broke’ Lessons

Jackie and Charly Crawford map their method for creating a legitimately rope-broke horse.

Charly Crawford breaks from the header team roping box while Jackie Crawford hazes, ready to heel the steer (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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Article by Stephenie Tanguay

Roping is a team sport. Relying on both verbal and nonverbal direction from the rider, the horse must know and perform its job accurately for the team to be prosperous. And although individual ropers – be it a header, heeler, breakaway or tie-down roper – require horses with particular capabilities, training rope horses requires that all horses be “rope-broke” for safe and amicable participation. 

If you’re going to define a “rope-broke horse” and discuss the most favorable methods of teaching them the language of roping, Jackie Crawford first stresses, “We are big believers that the horses must have a solid foundation before progressing any further.”

Before they start roping off a horse, Jackie and husband Charly want their horses to have a solid grasp on the intricacies associated with their job.

Exercises for Training Rope Horses

After a horse has been introduced to a rope from the ground, the Crawfords:

  1. Track a calf or steer around the arena, encouraging the horse to read and follow.

  2. During periods of rest, spend time sitting on the horse in the box.

  3. Score steers, meaning the horse sits in the box; the gate opens releasing a steer; and the horse continues to sit and wait on the rider for the cue to break from the box.

  4. Teach the horse to break from the box at a walk, then a trot.

  5. Simulate live cattle using a dummy and enforce drills.

  6. Introduce weight and pull on a rope in a safe manner by using a logging device.

  7. Start roping on really slow cattle.

Tracking Calves and Steers

Wanting her horses to be pliable rather than patterned, Jackie tracks calves loose in the arena. If the horse is relaxed with the rope, then she will track the calf while swinging the rope. However, if the horse needs more time getting comfortable with the rope, then tracking without swinging the rope keeps the process moving forward and teaches the horse to follow the calf or steer while continuously learning different aspects of the job. 

Jackie Crawford tracks a calf, swinging her rope aboard a bay horse

Wanting the horses to be pliable rather than patterned, Jackie tracks calves loose in the arena. If the horse is relaxed with the rope, she will track the calf while swinging the rope. (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)


In the middle of the exercise, Jackie may stop and turn the calf back. 

“I want them to learn my body cues and to listen to what I am asking,” she says.

If at any point a horse becomes nervous or shows signs of stress, Jackie immediately goes back to the basics until the horse is comfortable and confident again. 


Before roping a single steer out of the box, Jackie and Charly spend an incredible amount of time scoring cattle. 

“While Charly is roping, I am riding the green horses in and out of the box, scoring and scoring and scoring some more, teaching them what I mean by ‘Don’t go’ or ‘Go.’ Then they know the box is a calm place.” 

Jackie and Charly never run out of the box on a horse during the learning phase. 

“We always start at a walk,” she says.

The Crawfords keep a set of what they call “training” cattle, which are used during this stage of the teaching process.

“When the gate opens, I want the horse to move forward when asked,” Jackie says, keeping the horse in the box as the steer leaves the gate.

“Once a horse is comfortable following a steer out at a walk, then I will ask him to trot,” she says as she distinctly moves her hand forward, signaling the horse to step forward at a walk. She picks up a trot about a third of the way down the arena and follows the steer out before bringing up another set of cattle.

Charly Crawford sits in the roping box and scores a steer as it's released from the chute; this is part of the process of training a rope horses

Scoring is an ongoing element of training, Charly says while the gate opens, releasing another steer. (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)


Roping Dummy Drills

Dummy drills are always practiced from the box and begin in the same slow manner, from a walk. Jackie and Charly pull a Smarty roping dummy behind a four-wheeler. The roping dummy is dragged in a variety of patterns, some to the left and some to the right, and at different speeds to teach the horse what to do under various circumstances. Pulling the “Smarty” in circles helps a head horse learn foot placement and how to really use his feet in small arenas.

“My whole goal is that when I am done with those horses, I can pull that bridle off and run whatever I want to run without that bridle because they know their job,” Jackie says.

“The places that it will come out if you have gone too fast, the places it will show, is in the box, and you will lose your control when it is time to set the steer,” she shares. “If that happens, then you know to slow down and work more on the foundation steps.”

Charly Crawford ropes a Smarty roping dummy while training a rope horse

A Smarty roping dummy is dragged in a variety of patterns at varying speeds, teaching the horse foot placement and how to think. (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)


Logging a Rope Horse and Teaching to Pull

Once the horse becomes unflappable with the rope and has learned to pursue a calf or steer, the next step is to add weight to the end of the rope, teaching the horse to pull.

Knowing that this is a step where some horses may become a little more spooky and out of concern for Jackie’s safety, Charly prefers to work with the horses when they enter this point of the training process. He uses a logging mechanism designed to kick to the outside when teaching a horse to tow weight. 

“When working with a horse, we ride in a square while the log is in tow,” Jackie says, as Charly demonstrates. The log used is not heavy. It has some weight so the horse learns to pull, but it moves easily as Charly lopes a colt while towing the contraption. 

Charly Crawford teaches a new head horse to pull by simulating the weight of a steer

Charly uses a logging mechanism designed to kick to the outside when teaching a horse to tow weight. 


“He is letting him figure out what is being asked,” Jackie explains. “We go straight and then we set, teaching the horse to rate before going around the corner.”

The process is then repeated on each side of the square.

“We eventually ask the horse to pick up speed while going straight, then slow him down, allowing him to get his footwork down with weight attached,” she says. 

Again, emphasizing that they prefer to teach a horse without using a set pattern, Jackie says, “The horse will learn the pattern with time. I want him to learn his job no matter what is going on.” 

Roping Slow Cattle

When it comes time to start working with live cattle, Jackie’s favorite exercise involves a second horse and rider. 

“One other person and I will get on our horses with a big, slow steer loose in the arena,” she explains. “We will head and heel the steer, then we stop and take off the ropes, swap ends and do the same thing again.” 

The colts gain knowledge of all aspects of the job without becoming dependent on a pattern. 

“Sometimes we may have to turn in a tight circle because there is no telling where we are in the arena,” Jackie continues. “Then, I can go back and do dummy drills to teach the horse the correct position out of the box. I want that versatility in him.” 

Making a game of the learning process also keeps the horses interested.

About the Sources: Jackie and Charly Crawford

Somewhere along the rodeo road, where Jackie Hobbs and Charly Crawford met, the two professional ropers discovered that their ideas aligned in a myriad of ways. That’s when they committed themselves to both a personal and professional partnership. From start to finish, the couple now works together with their combined 30-plus years of experience in the roping industry, developing some of the premier roping horses seen in competition today.

The couple makes their home in Stephenville, Texas, with daughter Kaydence and son Creed.

Charly is a nine-time NFR qualifier, partnering with Joseph Harrison in 2017, and Jackie holds 19 world titles in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.

Helpful Tools for Training Rope Horses

Always roping live cattle isn’t a viable practice option for most ropers, and recreating real-life situations with dummies can be a helpful tool for starting new rope horses and keeping experienced horses fine tuned. That’s where AQHA Corporate Partner John Deere can help. From utility vehicles, tractors and more, AQHA members can save up to 28% on John Deere purchases. Learn how at