A steer breaks loose across the arena floor, and moments later a pair of ropers are on his trail. The lead, or header, throws his rope around the steer’s head, turning him slightly so the trail, or heeler, is able to cinch the animal’s hind legs.
Simple enough? That scenario sometimes plays out in less than five seconds, during which a combination of timing, speed, precision and power plays out between both the riders and their horses.
“The team roping event is neat because it’s the only event in rodeo where two people are working together to try to rope the steer,” University of Wyoming rodeo coach Beau Clark said. “In a nutshell, it’s two guys riding two horses, with the horses trained to run to the steers, and they’re working together.”
As for who wins, there are no judges assigning point totals as they do in roughstock events like bull riding and bareback riding. The rodeo’s team roping header and heeler champions are decided purely on time. To have a shot at winning the header and heeler must both avoid suffering any penalties, which add time to their run, depending on the infraction.
It begins from the boxes, where one end of a breakaway barrier is attached to the steer and stretched across the open end of the header’s box. A steer is given a head start, with the distance dependent on the size of the arena. When the steer reaches its allotted advantage point the barrier is released, allowing the header to pursue. If the header breaks the barrier by leaving his box early, a 10-second penalty is added to the team’s total time.
A header can catch the steer cleanly around both horns, around one horn and the head or around the neck. Any other catch by a header is considered illegal, and the team receives a “no time.” From there the header’s work is mostly done. The fate of the team’s run is largely up to the heeler.
“Once they’re on the head, the header is trying to guide the steer across the arena, to allow the heeler to rope the steer by its legs,” Clark said.
The heeler must snag both the steer’s hind legs together. If only one leg is caught, the team gets a five-second penalty. Once the steer is caught, the clock is stopped when there is no slack in their ropes and their horses face each other.
As with all rodeo events, team roping traces its beginnings to ranch work.
“That’s how they used to doctor cattle in the pasture, or brand cattle in the pasture,” Clark said.
Clark said cowboys are always looking for someone with a high skill level on their end of the discipline.
“The two guys will have to work well together,” he said.
The rodeo coach said a formidable team will be equal parts roping skill and chemistry with each other.
“It’s like anything, at the highest level of pro rodeos: They know what the other guy is going to do,” he said. “They’ll know what to expect from each other throughout the run.”
According to ProRodeo.com, another important aspect of a successful team roping pair is the type of horse used. The American quarter horse is the most popular horse for timed event competitors, which include breakaway roping, tie-down roping and steer wrestling.
Heading horses are generally taller and heavier because they need power to turn the steer after it’s roped, while heeling horses need to be agile, enabling them to more easily react to the steer’s movement. ￼