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Cowboys and roping

Essential ranch-life skills with Hank the Cowdog


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Cowboys and roping

Here’s the latest excerpt from John Erickson’s five-volume “Hank the Cowdog’s Ranch Life Series.” Hank, known to the readers of the 76-books-and-growing series, sees himself as head of ranch security on a family ranch in the Texas panhandle. Published by permission from John and two partnering groups, the Ranching Heritage Association and the National Ranching Heritage Center, here’s an excerpt on true cowboy roping skills.

It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog. You want to know about ropes? The catch rope is about as simple a tool as you can imagine. It’s nothing but a piece of rope, 25 to 45 feet long, with an “eye” in one end, called the honda. When the end of the rope is passed into and through the honda, it forms a loop. Holding the coils of the rope in his left hand, the cowboy swings the loop in his right and makes his throw. That’s if he’s a right-handed roper. If he’s lefthanded, he holds the coils in his … I think you get the idea. He does the same things, only backwards.

Throwing a rope looks easy, but it’s not so easy when: A) the cowboy is aboard a horse that’s traveling 20 miles an hour over rough country; B) he’s holding the coils of his rope and his bridle reins in his left hand; C) the wind is blowing like crazy; and D) the target is running through mesquite bushes and trying to dodge the rope. In other words, ranch roping isn’t nearly as easy as you might suppose. Most cowboys spend YEARS, not months or weeks, perfecting their skill, and the more they practice, the better they become.

Take my buddy, Slim Chance, as an example. On a long summer evening, you’re likely to find him out in front of his house, throwing his rope at a cinder block or a bucket or a bale of hay. Even though he’s gone through the process of building a loop and making his throw thousands of times, he keeps practicing. On an average evening, he might throw his loop a hundred times. He has even been known to air-mail a loop at unsuspecting dogs. In fact, he’ll do it every time, if we give him the chance, which we usually don’t, because Drover and I have learned about that rope. When the rope comes out, we vanish.

The cowboys on this outfit use three basic roping techniques: heading, heeling, and herd roping. Heading: The head loop is the one they use most often in the pasture. They point the horse toward a stray or sick animal, pull the throttle, and give chase. A trained horse will “rate” the calf and give the cowboy a position about ten feet behind and (for a right-handed roper) a little to the left side. The cowboy brings up his loop, swings it over his head several times, and delivers a flat, open loop that falls over the animal’s neck. At that point, the cowboy has to “gather his slack.” He gives the rope a jerk and zips up the loop around the calf’s neck, otherwise the calf might run through the loop and leave it in the dirt. Once the loop is set, the cowboy “dallies” the rope around the horn of his saddle (he wraps or winds the rope), and brings the calf to a stop.

Before a cowboy pitches his loop on an animal, he should have already asked himself what he’ll do if he makes the catch. In the case of small calves, he’ll probably step off his horse, run down the rope, “flank” the calf to the ground, and tie three legs with his “pigging string.” That works on animals that weigh up to three or four hundred pounds. With yearling cattle or grown cows, flanking them down isn’t an option. They’re too big. In that case, he might use a technique called “tripping.” He flips his rope over to the right side of the calf, turns his horse off to the left, and trips the calf to the ground. While the horse holds the rope tight, the cowboy runs down the rope and uses his pigging string to tie three legs.

In the case of grown stock or big yearlings, he might bring along another cowboy who serves as the “heeler.” Cowboys who have to catch and doctor yearling cattle often work in pairs. After one cowboy makes the head catch, the second man, the “heeler,” rides up behind the caught animal and throws a “heel loop” beneath its belly. This loop is delivered with a sideways motion and stands open so that the animal will step into it with both hind legs. At that point, the heeler gathers his slack and pulls it tight around the hocks, dallies his rope, and stops his horse. When both horses pull in opposite directions, the yearling stretches out and falls to the ground. While the horses hold the ropes tight (they’re trained to do this), the cowboys dismount and do whatever they need to do with the calf: give it a shot of antibiotic, doctor an inflamed eye, lance an abscess, or remove porcupine quills from the animal’s mouth.

This technique is called “team roping” or “heading and heeling,” and it’s a common pasture roping technique. You might have noticed that it’s also a popular event in rodeo: team roping. The third roping technique our cowboys use is “herd roping,” and they use it mainly at branding time. Once the cow herd has been gathered from the pasture and penned in the corrals, one or two cowboys ride into the herd and begin catching unbranded calves. On some ranches, the cowboys rope the calves by the neck, and it’s called “heading” or “necking.” Old-time cowboys disapproved of heading techniques that required the roper to swing the loop above his head (it frightened the cattle and made them restless), and they devised special techniques for roping inside a herd. One loop, the Hoolihan, was delivered with one quick sweep of the arm, and didn’t require the cowboy to twirl his rope.

A better method for roping calves out of the herd is heeling. The cowboy rides through the herd and delivers a soft, open loop under the calf’s belly. He tries to catch the calf by both heels (“double-hocks,” they call it), but sometimes comes up with one, and it works either way. He turns the horse and drags the calf to the branding fire, where two “flankers” throw the calf to the ground and hold it down. Heeling calves in a herd resembles the kind of heeling that occurs in team roping, but there are differences. Because herd roping occurs inside a group of cattle, the roper and his horse have to slip through the herd in the quietest possible manner, so as not to get the cattle stirred up.

A good herd-heeler tries not to make long throws that require him to twirl his loop. Instead, he works his horse to get “position” on the calf—a close shot that can be laid under the calf’s belly with a soft motion. Cowboys sometimes call this “laying a trap” or “trapping.” Roping a young calf in the pasture is one of the most difficult assignments a cowboy can draw. Small calves make a small target, don’t you see, and they don’t run in a straight line. They dodge and dart. Sometimes they’ll even run between the horse’s legs. Roping a scared calf is about like trying to stick a loop on a jackrabbit. Even a good roper can spill several loops before he gets one to hang around the calf’s small neck—and most of the time, he won’t tell anybody the misses. Cowboys don’t like to talk about the loops they throw into the dirt. But their dogs know! Hee hee! Oh, the stories we could tell.

Cowboys would spend all their time horseback, if they could, and they are proudest of their skills with a horse and a rope. But they can’t spend every hour of every day ahorseback, because there’s more to running a cattle ranch than riding and roping. Maintaining windmills, for example. Ranches in the prairie states depend on windmills to provide a constant supply of fresh water for the cattle to drink. An average-sized ranch in the Texas Panhandle might have ten or fifteen windmills, and the cowboy must be enough of a windmiller to keep them oiled and running, and to perform simple maintenance on them when they break down.

The cowboy must also be enough of an amateur veterinarian to deal with simple health problems. He might have to doctor a cut on a horse’s leg, help deliver a heifer’s calf in the middle of the night, give shots of antibiotic to a sick calf, or open up and drain an abscess caused by a mesquite thorn. And he’d better be a pretty good hand at building and maintaining barbed wire fence, because every ranch in our part of the country will have miles of it. This is probably the cowboy’s least favorite job, but it has to be done.

You might have heard the expression, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Do you know what that means? It means that if you don’t keep up your fences, your cattle are likely to stray over into your neighbor’s pasture and eat his grass, which won’t make you popular with those neighbors. The cowboy should also have a passing knowledge of welding, carpentry, plumbing, and auto mechanics. When things break down on a ranch that’s 25 or 30 miles away from the nearest town, a guy has to “fix up and make do.”

Back at the beginning of this book, I told you we would be talking about working ranch cowboys, what they do and what they wear. But maybe we ought to say something about that other group of cowboys (and cowgirls) who participate in rodeo. Once again, we’ll use Slim Chance as our example. In The Case of the Most Ancient Bone, we learned that, in his younger days, Slim tried his hand at rodeo. He rode bareback broncs, did some calf roping and team roping, and even crawled on a few bucking bulls.

It was fun for a while, but then he learned a few things about rodeo. First off, rodeoing is exciting and fun if you do it once or twice a year, but if you hope to make any money, you have to go to rodeos all the time, and make rodeo the focus of your life. The people who are successful in rodeo have a lot of money tied up in equipment (a pickup, horse trailer, horse, rigging, and feed) and they live on the road during the rodeo season. That’s not an easy life. They have to be totally dedicated to the sport of rodeo. They have to train and condition their bodies just the way athletes do, because … well, that’s what they are, highly-trained, highly-conditioned, thoroughly dedicated athletes.

At some point in his youth, Slim decided that, while dabbling at rodeo was fun, he lacked the desire to make rodeo his career. That bit of wisdom probably came to him one night when a big stout bronc threw him higher than a house top and planted his nose in the dirt. When he sat up, located his hat and glasses, and realized that five hundred people had just watched him get wrecked by a horse, he said, “You know, I think I can find better things to do and easier ways of going broke.” And that was the end of Slim’s rodeo career.

Nowadays, he attends four or five rodeos a year as a spectator, and he has even competed in a few ranch rodeos—a type of rodeo that features ranch cowboys, not the professionals. He follows the rodeo standings in his livestock papers and he admires the athletes who have climbed to the top of their events, but he has no regrets about walking away from the arena. He knows that he’s a working cowboy, a ranch cowboy. His loyalty is to his ranch, to his employers (Loper and Sally May), and to a herd of cattle who depend on him to show up every day and take care of them. And for Slim, that’s enough. He’s proud of who he is and what he does, and that pride is something you’ll find in every cowboy who ever lived.

Well, that just about covers it, and by now you ought to be pretty well informed on the subject of cowboys, what they do, and the tools they use in their work. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about cowboys as much as I’ve enjoyed telling you. Some of my favorite people in the whole world are cowboys. They’re pretty special. But don’t forget that behind every good cowboy is a good cowdog. We’re the guys who follow them around on long horseback rides, keep monsters away from their houses at night, ride beside them in their pickups, warm their beds in the wintertime, and lick them on the face when they get bucked off a horse. And that’s pretty derned important. See you around.


John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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