Low numbered ropers often ask me whether someone can actually improve their roping using a mechanical dummy. The answer is absolutely – if you’re willing to work at it. What prohibits most people from reaching their potential is they want to have fun in the practice pen roping live steers and expect to improve while doing so.

I know more than a few guys who fit this profile. They’ve roped more than ten years, they practice twice a week, enter jackpots several times a month and have never improved. You will not improve if you’re unwilling to break it down and understand your weaknesses. You should work on your weakest link, whether it’s not being able to catch close, problems scoring, your horse won’t pull, etc.

It’s amusing when I see people who have 10 perfect practice steers and will immediately trade off any steer that develops a bad habit. Making it easy to catch in the practice pen is just crazy to me. If any of us could go to a roping and draw four perfect steers that run straight down the pen that would be great. But I have never seen that at any level. You will always draw steers that run right, left, slow down, etc. To be truly competitive, you need to practice catching those steers – so why would you maintain a “perfect” practice herd?

More importantly, you should have a mechanical dummy in your practice pen. I prefer the Hot Heels and have been using one for over 10 years. The folks at Hot Heels continually make modifications to help people learn to catch better. The object of the practice pen is to challenge and prepare you to compete at a high level. So if you practice on a mechanical dummy that is easy to catch, it’s the same philosophy as having 10 perfect practice steers. 

I asked Hot Heels to put a stick in front of the legs that they now call the “Jenn Stick.” When we were teaching my wife to heel, she would throw an outstanding loop on the machine while the back legs were forward and still catch. Basically she was “out of time” and still able to catch the machine. In my opinion, she was missing out on one of the most important things you learn in the practice pen – when to throw. The Jenn Stick will not let you catch when the legs are in the wrong position.

I’ve been teaching a long time and one thing I cannot teach is when to throw your heel loop. It’s an equation that involves the speed of the steer, the speed of your swing, and how fast your horse is moving. There are three variables to be considered when you start your delivery. You have to work on when to throw, every time you rope.

You cannot heel the steer when the front legs are back and the back legs are forward. You would be amazed at the number of #7 and #8 heelers who have been at my house and cannot catch the Hot Heels at a walk. I’ve never seen a #10 have a problem catching it. They can place their rope at a walk, trot, lope or going fast at the right time.

The moral is, if you’re struggling with your roping, do what athletes in other professional sports do. Break it down. Walk through the steps to get the fundamentals correct. It is very different to throw your rope heeling at a walk versus a dead run. Even at the top level, sometimes it’s necessary to rope a steer walking during competition.

It all comes back to fundamentals. If you have good fundamentals with your swing and horsemanship, it’s much easier to work on the problems you’re having. The difference with #10 heelers or #9 headers is once they recognize the issue causing problems, they are able to isolate the problem and fix it very quickly. This is because they have mastered the fundamentals.

During schools at my house we start out roping steers and film those runs. We then play the video back in slow motion, frame by frame, to see where the problems are in the fundamentals. Once we see the issues we need to work on, headers either rope the dummy on the ground or rope the Hot Heels standing still. Heelers will start at a walk. If you have issues with horsemanship, I want to address these at a walk. Once you’re successfully using your legs to control your horse at a walk and trot, you will have more success while loping and running. It’s very difficult to change basic fundamentals while loping and running.  

The next time you’re driving home from a roping unhappy with your performance, think about taking my challenge of roping the dummy at a walk and doing everything correctly. Have someone film you, then watch it until you recognize what’s causing you the biggest problem. Take the time to do the homework and make your practice matter. Yes, it’s fun to rope, but it’s more fun to win.

What’s new with me:  I am going to the winter rodeos and am committed until the George Strait, then I plan to focus on my schools. If you are interested in attending one of my schools, at your house or mine, visit speedroping.com and click on “Where’s Speed” to see available dates.

We just got back from Odessa rodeo and roping, Andrews Open roping, Waco USTRC and American Qualifier. I’ve loaded the short rounds and all of my runs on speedroping.com and they are free to watch. 

I’m happy to say I now have two horses that are working well and make me confident to compete. If you’ve never been to speedroping.com, there are plenty of free videos of competition and behind the scenes footage. 

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I’m pretty excited that I will get to throw my rope again this year for the possibility of $1 million at The American in March. This was an awesome event last year and one I re­commend watching.

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