Cowboy Ropes Course [Hint: it’s not a lasso]

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This is a guest post from author Kari Lynn Dell, who was featured on Episode 27 of the Earn Your Spurs Podcast. The post originally appeared on Kari’s blog at http://www.montanaforreal.blogspot.com/ .

Considering I am the daughter of a roper, it seems odd I didn’t start roping seriously until I was a sophomore in college. It had more to do with the lack of rodeos in our area that offered breakaway roping as an event than it did with my desire to be a roper. I’d turned plenty of steers in the practice pen for my dad so he could train heeling horses.

Then I got to college. After a few skid-on-my-chin incidents while dismounting in the goat tying (it never looked quite like this when I did it), I decided it made more sense to rope.

Of course, I made this decision three weeks into the season, which meant I wasn’t quite as well-equipped as I might have been had I planned a little better. But what the heck, my barrel horse was great for heading steers, so I just used him despite the fact that he was a foot taller than the average calf horse and had a stop that once knocked the wind out me. I’d never roped enough calves to even own a rope. I just ‘borrowed’ my dad’s old heading ropes.

So there I was at the big Montana State University spring college rodeo, sitting in the alley with the rest of the breakaway ropers, waiting to compete. One of the older girls looked at me, then at my raggy, fuzzed out nylon, and asked, “Where did you get that rope?”
“My dad gave it to me.”
Her eyebrows raised. “Doesn’t he like you?”
I went out the next week and bought a real calf rope.
Sounds simple. Stroll on down to Norman’s Western Wear with me, though, and you’ll be faced with something that looks like this:

ropes at normans

Yeah, that’s a lot of ropes, and they’re all different. So I figured since some of you are as confused as I was on that first trip to the store, I’d give you a brief tutorial.

First, a little history. Pretty much every version of human civilization in history created some form of rope. Handy stuff for hauling wood and building rafts and tying martyrs to the stake for burning. They made it of whatever fiber they had at hand, mostly from plants, unless they had livestock to provide horse hair or strips of rawhide. No one knows for sure who was first to fashion rope into a lariat, except that it seems to be linked to the presence of horses.

grass ropeFast forward to the modern West. Rodeo came on the scene, bringing the need for strong, balanced ropes of consistent quality. Early rodeo ropes were made of grass. Yeah, that kind of grass. Hemp. Mar-i-juana.

Well, not quite, but a close relative. Industrial hemp plants grow much taller and produce a lot more fiber than the kind that regularly go up in smoke. Tough, stringy fiber that makes excellent rope when twisted into strands. Three or four strands are then twisted together to form a uniformly sized rope.

A chunk of rope becomes a lariat (which we shall from this point forward be calling a rope because no self respecting rodeo person owns a ‘lariat’ or ‘lassoes’ anything. We own ropes. We rope cattle. We do not lasso unless we are being sarcastic) with the addition of a hondo, which allows for the building of a loop. The modern version of ropes have three main components:
rope labeledThe horn knot is used only when roping calves in the arena, when you want the rope securely attached to the saddle. When pasture roping or team roping, the tail of the rope is left loose, then wrapped or ‘dallied’ around the saddle horn to stop or turn the critter once roped. This allows for easy release in case of emergency, which generally involves a mad cow under your horse’s belly, or a rope tangled around your horse’s leg or under his tail, which ups the excitement quotient by a fair amount since a rope under the tail is pretty much guaranteed to make most horses blow up and go to bucking. This is not a good time to be tied on hard and fast.

The saddle horn is wrapped in strips of rubber—in this case, cut from an old inner tube, which are getting increasingly hard to find since the advent of tubeless tires. Without the rubber, the rope slides and burns through your hand.

Though a huge improvement on braided ropes, grass ropes had issues. Natural fiber is very sensitive to heat, cold and moisture. Let it get too dry and a grass rope is like trying to swing and throw a really long piece of limp spaghetti. Too wet and it’s the equivalent of that spaghetti if you leave the leftovers sitting out on the table overnight (not that I would ever do such thing). Grass ropes were also known to break. Not a good feeling, seeing the loose end of that rope come zinging back in your face. Like they say, it’s all fun until somebody loses an eye.

Nowadays, rodeo ropes come in three main flavors: poly, nylon and poly-grass. Poly-grass is favored by calf ropers, who like the weight and feel of the natural fiber, but with polypropylene strands woven in to increase strength. Poly-grass ropes are high maintenance. Go to a rodeo and you’ll see them on pickup hoods, baking in the sun to increase stiffness, in the shade under the pickup to ‘limber them up’, and stored in airtight cans to preserve the exact moisture content once achieved.

rope can

The white stuff in the can is baby powder. It makes the rope slicker so it ‘feeds’ more easily through the hondo. The white stuff outside the can needs no explanation.


Breakaway ropers prefer poly ropes. Cheaper, lower maintenance, more durable. Assuming you catch occasionally, a breakaway rope spends a lot of time dragging around on the ground behind the calf (like this.) You can rope a calf in the mud with a poly rope, hose it down, set it out to dry and it will recover. Do the same thing with a poly-grass, you might as well leave it at the catch pen, unless you need something to tie shut gates back at the ranch.

rope poly

Team ropers want a stiffer rope, so they use nylon. Nylon ropes come in a million versions of stiffness and weight (and color, when it’s the fashion), but the two main versions are heading and heeling ropes. Headers usually like a softer rope that will curl around the horns and come snug. Most heelers use a rope so stiff it’s like swinging a hula-hoop because they want the loop to stay wide open in order to capture the steer’s hind feet.

rope nylon

So, now you know more than you ever wanted or needed about ropes. Time to grab the ol’ rope can, crack out a loop and head for the arena.

Now that you’ve chosen your new rope, check out this dummy roping tutorial.


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Kari Lynn Dell is a native of north central Montana, a third generation ranch-raised cowgirl, horse trainer and rodeo competitor, most recently the 2013 Canadian Senior Pro Rodeo Association Breakaway Roping Champion. She attended her first rodeo at two weeks old and has existed in a state of horse-induced poverty ever since. She currently resides on the family ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation, loitering in her parents’ bunkhouse along with her husband, son and Max the Cowdog, with a tipi on the front step, a view of Glacier National Park from her writing desk and Canada within spitting distance.

Visit KariLynnDell.com to hear what’s next on the publication front, learn firsthand about ranch life on the east slope of Rockies and laugh with us at the tales of woe and wonder that come with living on the norther frontier. Really, someone should be filming this stuff.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ronald Brown

    How can someone visually tell the difference by looking at each type of rope. I found a cowboy rope on 70 acres purchased in east Texas. I’m guessing it was used for hauling cut trees out of a utility easement. It’s pretty stiff and dirty. I want to clean it up the correct way.

    1. Alyssa Barnes
      Alyssa Barnes

      Hey Ronald! You are probably better off just going to the feed store and buying a new one. Once they’ve been used and abused in such a manner, they aren’t good for much else!

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