Cow Horse to Rope Horse, Part 2

AQHA Professional Horseman Les Oswald explains how to train a cow horse to stop like a rope horse in the second half of this horse-training series.

In the first part of this horse-training series, AQHA Professional Horseman Les Oswald of Oakdale, California explained how to start training your cow horse to be a rope horse. Les continues in this second half to explain how to train your horse to stop and also answers some common questions.

Stop not Scotch

Once a horse is quiet and comfortable in the box, Les turns a single steer loose in the arena and tracks it around. Positioning and timing are everything, Les says.

“Tracking and heading teaches a horse where to run and get into position without even having him in the box,” Les says. “I rope just like I was going to be steer stopping out of the box, which teaches that horse how to run, rate and hold a position. And that is where the big stops come from. I run up there, swing over the steer’s back a couple of times, rope it, pull my slack, dally and ask the horse to stop. It takes the pressure of coming out of the box off the horse.”

Winning four-event contests with big stops comes from good timing, Les says. The timing of the horse, a la being able to read the cow, and combining the equine timing with the roper’s rhythm to synchronize the run is ever important.

“Every one of those horses can stop really hard,” Les says. “It is just how hard the steer is running and how good the timing brings everything together. In any given moment, any of the horses at the Magnificent 7 (All-Around Stock Horse Championship) or World’s Greatest Horseman contests can win the steer stopping. It comes down to the luck of the draw on the steer and the timing.”

Older, wiser four-event horses learn to anticipate the stop and scotch, like a stock horse second-guessing the sliding stop at the end of a rundown. In training, Les habitually moves his horses forward after he ropes. He keeps forward propulsion because there is more to a roping stop than a show horse stop.

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“It’s not like you can say, ‘OK, next stride I’m going to say whoa,’ ” Les says. “In roping, when you run up there, you have to be thinking about roping the steer around the horns, pulling your slack, dallying, not pulling so hard so your horse opens his mouth and staying square in your saddle. It is a full picture of the judged part of the event. You can’t have your legs back behind you; you need to get your feet out in front of you just like sliding a horse. It is a horse-show event, not a rodeo.”

Les likes his steer-stopping horses to move a little more freely than some of his peers, which is just his style of roping and personal timing. When he pulls his slack and goes to the saddle horn, and as he sits down, his horse is still running and can go to the ground harder. He does not want the horse to anticipate the rope and start hitting the ground on his front end.

Showing a rope horse puts a burden on the rider equally as important as the equine performance. Les often helps cow-horse trainers tune their horses and roping skills prior to major four-event contests. If a rider is off on his timing during a rundown to a reining stop, he might be able to go a couple extra strides to salvage his cadence - not an option in steer stopping.

“If you run up there, rope and kind of just lope along, it takes away from the run,” Les says. “Judges want to see somebody rope aggressive by asking that horse to really run up there and, when they get to the steer, take another swing to show that horse will rate without pulling on the bridle reins.”

Les advises taking that extra swing, roping the steer, and as you’re pulling the slack and dallying, you are raising the rein hand, which commits the horse to the ground. The quicker the steer comes around, he suggests, the harder that horse is stopping.

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The theme of Les’s training program lies in keeping prospective and seasoned rope horses calm, relaxed and happy with their job. He takes the time to walk them back to the box after a run - it isn’t a matter of how many runs you make, he says. And for many horses, adding “the rope” to their résumé may salvage a horse that couldn’t quite make the cut as a cutting, reining or cow horse.

Common Questions for Les

Do you log your rope horses? I sometimes log my head horses, but not a lot. I mainly use it to teach a horse to face, not to get them in shape. I use the log as a tool to move a body part. If a horse is not getting his ribcage up underneath him enough, he is not pushing enough with his left hind leg.
Why do ropers use tie-downs? A head or heel horse uses the tie-down as a balance, just like racehorses balance on jockeys’ hands. It also helps if we get a little quick with our hands, so their head won’t get in the way. The length of the tie-down shouldn’t be too short. When the horse is standing relaxed, the tie-down should just have the slack out of it.
What is the main reason rope horses rear up in the box? Horses that are jerked on or those who don’t know how to give their face to light pressure end up between the back of the box and heavy hands. That puts them in such a bind, there is nowhere for them to go but up.
How important are the right cattle when roping? Without good cattle, I can’t make good horses. A lot of people get into trouble starting young rope horses on cattle that are too big and too fast. The cattle I keep are a little slower, a little lighter – Holsteins, Jerseys, etc. – that are confidence-builders for horses.