The Ropes of Buying a Rope

The Ropes of Buying a Rope

We examine lay, material, full or scant diameters, strand count and length for team ropers, tie-down ropers and ranch cowboys.

team roping palomino horse (Credit: AQHA Journal)

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By Julie Mankin with Tara Matsler for Performance Horse Journal

The sheer variety of ropes on the market is no reason to get overwhelmed. But before you go buy a rope, it’s best to have a handle on rope features.

Material isn’t always included on the tag at the tail-end of a rope for sale, but that tag does feature plenty of information, including the maker, the “lay” and the length of the rope.

Lay refers to the stiffness of the rope, which is vastly important. You’ll find that calf ropes come in the more flexible grass or synthetic materials because the roper needs to pinpoint his target and wants to be able to jerk the slack out immediately so the calf can’t run through the loop. Team ropes, on the other hand, come in the stiffer nylon or poly-blend versions to remain open while trapping two hind feet or capturing wide horns.

There are six general lays of a rope: extra-soft, soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard and hard. If you’re not strong – or if you’re a beginner – you may find a soft or a medium-soft rope easier to handle.

“A medium-soft is generally the best rope to help you learn to feel your tip and keep more control of your rope,” says George McQuain, who has been involved in manufacturing Rattler and Classic ropes for two decades. “It’s kind of like blades in golf – they’re great at letting you work the ball, but they’re hard to hit unless you’re a pro. Medium-hard ropes are like blades that way.”

Scant” or “full” diameters are another feature. Traditionally, most ropes were made with a diameter of 3/8 of an inch. That’s called full. But what does “scant” mean in ropes? Scant is really 5/16ths – but is sometimes referred to as “3/8ths scant.” Again, the smaller diameter can be easier to handle for a beginner or person with less hand strength. Calf ropes can also come in scant diameter, but are more commonly classified by millimeter measurement. Most calf ropes range from 9 mm to 10.5 mm in thickness.

That brings us to how the number of strands in your rope affects its performance.

For years, ropes were made of three strands twisted together. All three might be the same material, or one or more could be another material blended in, such as poly and grass, or nylon and poly. More recently, ropes with more strands have been introduced, with the selling point that they have less bounce to them. For years, ropers have felt the need to stretch new ropes prior to use, which helps eliminate a new rope’s tendency to be springy, and makes it more likely that a well-placed loop will stay exactly where it’s delivered, rather than bouncing off the target.

Regarding length, the generally preferred size for calf ropes has been 25 feet long, while head ropes typically come 30 feet long and heel ropes are 35 feet. Ropes that you tie on are typically shorter. Ranch ropes are available in varying lengths, starting at 35 feet all the way up to 60 feet long. The old rawhide riatas were close to 75 feet.