From Cow Horse to Rope Horse, Part 1

In Part 1 of this horse-training series, AQHA Professional Horseman Les Oswald begins to explain how to add a fourth dimension to a cow horse.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

There is a knack to turning out good rope horses, be it for competition or work around the ranch. Paying a lot of roping dues through the years has positioned AQHA Professional Horseman Les Oswald at the top of that game. The Oakdale, California, trainer went to his first roping as a 6-year-old and has never looked back.

Cow horses and, in some cases, reining horses make great roping prospects, Les says. Having a broke horse to start with is a helpful asset when adding a fourth dimension, the rope. But don’t think the addition is a slam-dunk.

“People mistakenly think because cow horses have that foundation that we can make them a rope horse overnight,” Les says. “They think since he is a 4-year-old and you can ride him around the arena, that he’s ready to go rope on. That’s not true.”

Time Well Spent

Les generally ropes on his trainees four days per week. The other days are spent teaching the horses to guide one-handed and reminding them of previous lessons learned about stopping, rolling back, moving off the legs and other maneuvers they need to retain through the rope-training process.

“Besides the more broke horses we get in here, there are a few that you can barely lope in a circle,” Les says. “People want us to try to rope a steer, but I don’t know where that steer is going when it leaves the box and I have to be able to guide the horse until he figures out that pattern.”

As always, the process of transitioning from the performance pen to the roping arena varies with the individual animal. The Oswald baseline begins with heeling a burro.

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“I get them comfortable tracking something around where they don’t have to think about stopping,” Les says. “Once they’ve learned to follow really good, I will try to heel on them for a week or two. If they feel quick and catty, wanting to stop a cow, I won’t do as much heeling. I’ll (head) my really slow steers. And I do a lot of things just at a walk. I walk out of the box and walk or jog up to the steer.”

“Once the horses are accepting of me throwing the rope, I’ll walk out of the box, break off into a lope and make it easy for them,” he adds. “They already know how to run and stop a cow. I’m trying to teach them how to leave the box, because it is a judged event from the time the horse leaves the back of the box.”

Les spends plenty of hours in slow mode, making sure his horses are leaving the box flat instead of elevating their front ends. His horses learn to break flat and run flat across the barrier. As they progress, he begins stepping them up to brighter steers that “maybe run a little bit.” At this point, he is using a breakaway rope that releases under tension.

“I use a breakaway when I first start so a steer never turns and looks at us, which keeps the horse from getting scared at the end of that stop,” Les says. “We’ve taught the cow horses to look at a cow and cow up. When we do the steer stopping, and that steer turns and looks at the horse, it can startle him. Using a breakaway rope allows him to run up there and be comfortable.”

Boxed In

Asking a show horse to stand relaxed, yet alert, in a roping box can be asking a lot. With cattle banging the chute, metal doors slamming and other distractions, it is not uncommon for horses to become unsettled and fidgety.

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“When I have one that gets a little nervous in the box, I’ll ride him in there and walk a lot of circles,” Les says. “I like turning my horses away from a cow (in the chute) when in the box. If they continue being nervous, I’ll make them turn toward the cow; then they can keep an eye on the cow.”

Les notes that everyone experiences problems in the roping box and most have a different opinion on the best solutions. Les feels a horse cannot be scored (remaining in the box while releasing steers that are not chased and roped) or hang out in the box enough. Walking circles until the horse is quiet convinces most that the box is not a big deal.

Once quiet, Les backs the horse into the corner, never allowing his feet to stop moving until his rump is completely in the corner of the box. Stop, stand and relax.

“A lot of times, I’ll just sit in there and talk on the cell phone with a steer loaded in the chute,” Les says. “Instead of making him run from the back of the box, I’ll let him walk out of there. That keeps him from thinking every time that gate bangs open that he has to take off. He has to stand there flatfooted and be looking at the cow, leave real quiet, and that’s how you teach a horse to leave flat.”

Les also holds his reins and rope as if he were ready to break, run and rope a steer. The horse is given no clues as to whether he’ll be standing or chasing a bovine. Les holds a horse in his hand softly, not pulling. When his hand releases, he wants the horse to break flat and go.

In second half of this series, Les explains how he works on stopping with his horses and answers a few basic roping questions.