Dr. Galley,
We sure miss seeing you at the ropings... maybe since you can’t rope anymore you can still send your entry fees (just kidding).
I remember several years ago that you wrote about injuries to the hind end of the heading horses. This year I was entered at the Windy Ryon Roping (in the amateur roping) and my horse wasn’t handling the ground very well. The ground looked really good (MUCH better than in years past) but I overheard several guys mention that their horses were slipping. I don’t know if any horses were hurt there but I wonder if you could discuss how the various ground conditions might contribute to back end problems.

I agree that the ground was a lot better since the Windy Ryon Committee hauled in all of that sand. It really helped. Those committee members really put out a lot of effort planning and putting on that roping. It is no wonder that it is considered one of the top ropings in the United States.
We don’t have a practical way to measure the forces that a heading horse puts on its body, especially their hindquarters, during a “normal” team roping run. Years ago a force plate system was utilized to attempt to measure the forces that a race horse experiences on its forelimbs while galloping down a racetrack while carrying a jockey. The forces averaged between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds per square inch on the horse’s forelegs.
When you factor in the weight difference between the average heading horse and a racehorse (which is usually a 2- or 3-year-old), the weight of an average header on a team roping saddle, and the average jockey on a jockey saddle, I am certain that a heading horse exerts at least that amount of force on their forelimbs as they catch the steer, rate off, set the steer, and take it across the pen. In fact, the forces probably approach 20,000 pounds per square inch or more. It certainly is not difficult to understand how injury can occur to those horses during a “normal” run.
Now when we break down the run a little further, as they slow the steer and set the steer and begin to take it across the arena and face at the end of the run, they are exerting a tremendous amount of force on their hind quarters. All of us who have headed are very aware of how that feels, especially when roping larger hard-running cattle. After making several runs like that over a long score and in a big pen we actually EXPECT to find a little soreness when we examine the horse the next morning. If the horse slips or takes a misstep during one of the runs, then the chance of injury increases greatly.
The newer professional level cameras available today allow us to obtain digital images taken at 6 to 12 frames per second. This allows us to learn a great deal about how these horses get a little sore due to the stresses and strains of these “normal” runs. Even when you are used to making hundreds of head runs, as a rider it is difficult to feel much of the subtle normal slipping and sliding that the heading horse experiences during the run. Of course, if the horse tries to go down, stumbles, or something like that, then it becomes obvious to the header that the horse did something unusual.
Figure 1 and Figure 2 were taken of Speed Williams during this year’s Windy Ryon. I shot the photos at 6 frames per second so slightly more than 1 tenth of a second went by between those photos. Notice how Speed is just getting a hold of the steer in Figure 1 and his horse is setting the steer. Notice in Figure 2 how much the position of both hind limbs changed from Figure 1 to Figure 2. Remember, only about 1 tenth of a second went by between those photos. I didn’t discuss the run with Speed but I would be surprised if he was aware of any slipping taking place at all.
Figure 3 was taken a little closer to the box in an area that had gotten a little deeper as the afternoon went on. This is Turtle Powell and Travis Graves and it looks like Turtle’s horse nearly went down behind as he set the steer. These heading horses have to be great athletes to go through that and never miss a stride. It is obvious that the horse in Figure 3 was much more subject to injury than Speed’s horse, simply due to the position of the hindquarters in the deeper ground. As a heading horse tries to compensate for this slipping they will often overreach and injure the bulb of the heel of one or both forefeet as they attempt to get fully back in their stride.
Injuries to the soft tissues, such as the ligaments, tendons, and musculature of the hindquarters are more commonly seen in these situations than are fractures. Strains of the back muscles and the muscles over the hips and pelvis are a very common occurrence. Injuries to the ligaments of the sacroiliac area and the pelvic area are also common. The hip joints and the stifle joints experience problems also. This underscores the importance of having our horses in top physical condition to attempt to prevent injury when these situations occur.
For those of us who don’t get to rope every day, it is a good habit to take your horses that you used hard over the weekend out of their stalls or their pen and trot them around a little and palpate their legs and hindquarters. This will insure that any slight injury that may have occurred might be noticed before you saddle to rope later in the week.
The way team roping is today we have fewer and fewer opportunities to rope outside in a big pen (especially with the wind in your face). There are sure more variables to contend with. One of the problems in putting on a roping like this involves being able to keep the ground in great shape as the roping progresses. Considering the conditions, they did a great job.
Thanks for the question.

Vet View Fig. 1 - SpeedFig. 1

Vet View Fig. 2 - SpeedFig. 2

Vet View Fig. 3 - Travis TurtleFig. 3

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