The Real Art of Roping Horses

It's a real art, and it's still practiced today on a lot of ranches.

Roping a horse is not easy; the horse is taller than the cowboy, so the loop has to be tossed into the air so that it falls over the horse’s head. And for those who wonder why cowboys rope horses instead of just walking up to one with a halter or bridle, first you have to ask, who wants to wade in among a hundred or more milling horses and try to bridle the one that’s standing way over on the other side of the herd. Second, the horses are trained to be caught that way. They may try to evade the tossed loop, but once they’re roped, they easily allow themselves to be led to a waiting cowboy who bridles them.

Only certain cowboys are allowed to rope horses, and those are usually men who have a lot of experience and/or seniority. The other cowboys stand around the remuda, some holding the ropes of the rope corral and others with their bridles. They call out the names of the horses they want to ride that day, and the roper catches those horses for them.

The roper normally throws what’s called a hoolihan loop, where he holds the loop in front of him and a little to the left – if he’s roping right handed – and then brings it across in front of him, up over his head and throws it, all in one motion. The loop flattens out as it sails through the air and then drops over the horse’s head.

AQHA Professional Horseman Patrick Hooks of Texhoma, Oklahoma, says that roping doesn't take magic, just knowledge and lots of practice. Download AQHA's FREE report, Roping Basics, and learn how to build a loop and swing a rope.

This hoolihan loop is used instead of a regular roping throw because a cowboy standing on the ground swinging the loop over his head in preparation for throwing it would probably spook the whole herd.

There are a lot of rules around a rope corral, according to Boots O’Neal, who has worked on some of the largest ranches in the country since about 1949, including the JA, the Waggoner and the Four Sixes.

“If the horses are in the rope corral, and you unsaddle outside it, then you have to put the horse you just unsaddled inside the corral. If you just turned him loose, he would learn not to stay in the ropes,” Boots says.

“If a horse crawls out of that rope corral, the whole outfit shuts down and puts him back in there. I’ve seen a lot of horses that were mean, but they wouldn’t run over that rope corral. You might not be able to ride them after you caught them, but they wouldn’t run over that rope.”

Boots says that when he was working with the JA wagon crew sometime around 1950, they were watching horses one evening and a pretty good storm was brewing.

“We had just tossed a rope around the remuda and I was standing there with a wet rope in each hand. All of a sudden, lightning hit real close, and a blue flash popped across the top of those horses. It knocked several horses down and a couple of men, and that electricity went all the way around that wet rope. Some of us burnt our hands, and we had little kernels come up under our arms. The horses were really stirred up, and the wagon boss hollered to let them go. I sure was glad, because I figured he would want us to hold them.”