Training a Rope Horse

Get horse-training advice from multiple world champion and Wrangler Extreme Team Member C.R. Bradley.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

AQHA Professional Horseman C.R. Bradley of Collinsville, Texas, makes it look so easy. From the arena stands, it’s as if his horses read his mind as they burst out of the box and make all the right moves for C.R. to rope up a winning run.

In reality, C.R. practices for hours and hours to get his horses where he wants them. Check out his fine-tuned program, which emphasizes patience and lots of time.

Getting Started

Before training begins, C.R. likes a horse to be broke enough that he can collect and control the entire body.

In the beginning, I spend a lot of time showing my horses what I expect of them and how to do things correctly,” he says. “The farther along in their training, the more I give them the opportunity to do things on their own without help from me, and the more I expect from them.”

When he starts a rope horse, C.R. puts a calf in the arena and works the horse like a cutting horse for a few days to teach it to pay attention to the cow.

“Then I begin to track the calf around,” he says. “I like my horses to be straight and close behind the calf. My goal is to eventually have the horse follow the calf on his own. If the calf goes right or left, the horse should move to maintain the calf’s position.”

If the horse isn’t rating or becomes chargy, C.R. stops, backs his horse and tries again.

“As my horse becomes comfortable with this and maintains the correct position, I’ll rope the calf with a breakaway or knot rope, allowing the horse to stop as I pull my slack,” he says.

Solidify what you've learned about roping and download the AQHA Roping Basics Free Report with AQHA Professional Horseman Patrick Hooks.

The next step, C.R. explains, is letting a calf out of the chute before tracking it around the arena. He lets his horse slowly leave the box and gradually catch up to the calf. After roping the calf, he returns to the box to let the horse rest.

“As the horse progresses, he needs to learn how to take the jerk of the calf hitting the end of the rope. I like to use a knot rope that will come off of the calf’s head when it turns around. If the horse is coming out of its stop, not wanting to take the jerk from the calf, then right after the calf hits the end of the rope I’ll take all the slack out of the reins and pull straight back toward my belt buckle until my horse yields to the pressure and comes back. Then I release. After doing this a couple of times, I’ll give the horse a chance to stop and get back on its own.”

Working the Rope

C.R. wants his horses to work the rope because they know what to do, not because they’re scared.

“So, I spend a lot of time showing him exactly what I want,” he says. He follows these steps:

    • Start with two ropes attached to the saddle horn, one on each side of the horse’s neck and through two keepers (about 4 inches long) attached to the tie-down. Standing in front of the horse, ask the horse to back up. The first day, get your horse to take a few steps backward on his own.


    •  Remember that you want your horse to back straight with his body straight. He eventually has to do it on his own, so when the horse stops or slows down, bump down and away with the rope on the keeper until the horse pulls.


    • When the horse is comfortable backing, attach one of the ropes to a log to add weight. C.R. uses a log because it’s easier on the calves, and it lets him spend more time working his horses without the calf running around on the end of the rope. Always wait until the rope is tight between the horse and the log before getting off of your horse.


    • Teach your horse to pull the weight until you sit down on the log, as if the log is a calf. Your horse should stop when you sit.


    • When the horse understands when to stop pulling, he needs to hold the rope tight between himself and the log. To teach this, slide the log toward the horse, expecting the horse to take the slack out, or sit on the log and pull on the rope against the saddle horn, then slowly release it.


    • When the horse is doing everything correctly, use just one rope.


    • You can also run a jerk line (not permitted during AQHA competition, but an effective training tool) through a pulley to the bit by exerting pressure on it when needed, releasing when the horse responds by backing up.


    • If your horse backs crooked, try backing him down a fence or around a rounded corner of the arena, or stay on the horse to correct him while he pulls the log or calf.


    •  A green horse should be logged one to three times a day. Continue practicing a few times a week even after the horse has figured it out, and you’ve progressed to tying calves.


    • The first few times you tie down a calf, it’s easiest if you rope the calf and stay on the horse while another person flanks and ties the calf.


    • I prefer to get off of the left side of the horse for a while. Some horses have a tendency to move to the left, because everything’s happening to the right. Stepping off left keeps them stopping straight.


    • After getting off of the horse, sometimes stand still, letting your horse pull the calf to you.


    • It’s good to use a knot rope with a smaller loop and take it for the calf’s head when you get to it. Bradley uses a smaller loop because, instead of thinking about tying the calf down, he can watch the horse to make sure it’s doing things correctly.

Box Behavior

In the box, your horse must be relaxed and pay attention to you.

“It’s better not to put too much pressure on the horse in the box in the beginning,” C.R. says. “I like to use the box as a resting place. The first couple of times that I rope out of the box, I like to use slow calves so the horse won’t have to leave the box running too hard.”

Become a better roper. Download the AQHA Roping Basics FREE Report, with tips from AQHA Professional Horseman Patrick Hooks.

He rides with short reins, keeping his hand low and moving his hands slowly and relaxed.

“I want the horse to walk in on the left side of the box, walk all the way back to the corner and, when asked, turn slowly,” he says. “The horse should be in line with the corner. With some horses, I’ll walk forward (which will free their feet up).”

He asks every horse to slowly back into the corner. While in the corner, the horse should stand straight with equal weight on all four legs.

“I always have steady contact with the horse’s mouth,” he says. “If I release the pressure, the horse should move forward. If a problem arises, I try to take the horse away from the box and make him do some sort of work, like spin or gallop circles. Then I come back to the problem, make the horse do it right and then rest. It’s important to fix problems in the box as soon as they happen.”

C.R. scores a lot of calves (lets a calf out of the chute while he stays in the corner of the box without chasing the calf). “I believe in scoring numerous calves because it helps the horse to relax, and it also teaches them to pay attention to me, not the calf or the chute opening,” he says.

Moving Up

C.R. expects a lot from his finished horses.

“I want them to give me 100 percent every time,” he says. “So, if my horse is trying, I’ll only run two to four calves, once or twice a week.”

Instead of tying many calves down, he uses the knot rope so he can keep his horse stopping and getting back straight and hard.

“If problems arise, I have more success working on parts of the run separately and get the first maneuver down correctly before working on the next step,” he says. “I want my horse to score correctly before I run a calf, track correctly before I throw my rope and stop good before I’ll get off to tie one down. If my horse isn’t doing something correctly, it jeopardizes the next part of the run.

“I always give my horses a chance to work on their own, but if they do make a mistake, I’ll correct them immediately.”

Watch This

Clinician Curt Pate takes beginners through the processes used in ranch roping.