Is He Cheating You?

Heading horses can pick up bad habits. Here are some horse-training tips to fix one of them.

It’s easy for horses to pick up bad habits.

I see a lot of horses in the roping pen that have picked up some bad habits that make it harder for their amateur owners to catch in team roping.

If an amateur roper isn’t working with a trainer who can fix the problem or with someone who can point it out, that problem can get worse.

One problem that some heading horses pick up is cheating on the pull. Here’s how to tell if your horse is cheating and how you can fix it.

An Ideal Run

In an ideal heading run, the horse runs up and rates off the steer when I rope. When I dally, I want to pick up on that horse, and I want to feel him collect on his rear end for the set for the heeler.

The horse should start slowing the steer while they’re both moving forward. After I set the steer, I start logging him across the pen.

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His collection should still be in the rear end as he’s turning and logging. The rope will come across my leg, and the pull stays to the side and behind the horse as we log. This is how the horse handles the steer, and it’s a big mark on the scorecard.

When I give my horse the signal, I want him to collect, plant a back leg and come around and face.

After horses have faced a few times, though, they start anticipating it. When the rope comes tight, they’re collecting themselves and preparing for the face, and I don’t have to rein the horse around.

The head horse’s job is to be in control of the situation. When a good head horse is in the wrong position, he’ll step over to be in the right position.

How They Cheat

It’s easier for horses to give to the steer than to work and bring the steer to them. That’s where they’ll start anticipating and cheat. When you start to rope, they’re turning their body away and already starting the turn.

I don’t want a horse to do that. It’s less safe. When the horse bends at the ribs and takes the jerk and log from the side, he can be pulled over. He’s not handling the steer; he’s letting the steer handle him. He’s drifting and giving to the steer. He’s off-balance, and he only has two of his feet to take the jerk instead of all four.

Then the steer gets behind him without ever having been handled, and the rope goes behind the horse.

If the rope goes across the horse’s rear end instead of across the roper’s leg, it’s harder for the horse to log the steer across the pen and set for the heeler. Then when it’s time to face, the head horse has to come around farther, and that maneuver isn’t as clean either.

This is a big problem I see in head horses when I’m judging and when I’m giving clinics. A lot of times the rider doesn’t feel it, but when the horse’s ribs get bent, he’s not able to handle the steer. He’s not a heading horse - he’s a horse trying to get out of work.

The problem can even get worse. Some horses start pulling away as the roper delivers the loop, changing the target and not giving the roper a chance to catch. Then the roper starts reaching or delivering early, and he wonders why he’s not winning, whether it’s at a jackpot or in the horse show arena.

If that’s happening, you don’t have to give up. You just need to fix the horse.

How To Fix It

When I get a horse with a cheating problem, I stop a lot of steers.

We come out of the box as if it’s a normal run, and when we get to the steer, as I feel the horse bending, I straighten him out before I rope. I’ll move his ribs back over and get him straight in line with the steer so he’s running straight, not sideways.

Then we stop the steer, going back to basics.

If the horse has been cheating for long, the first thing he’s going to want to do when I rope is move his rear end sideways when we stop.

I’ll correct that again, and I’m going to do that again and again until I can keep him straight between my legs and he doesn’t get sideways. We just stop the steer, and I don’t give him a change to log incorrectly, or bend his rib cage and take the jerk wrong.

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I’ve had a few horses that have been doing it so long that it was tough to break their habit, and their owners wanted to sell them.

It can take a long time and a lot of steer stopping, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can train you horse to work a steer correctly.

A horse can handle the steer much better straight on, if he’s facing forward first, the steer is in front of him and the rope is tight. He has all four feet on the job and he’s in charge, just like a good heading horse should be.