Roping 101

Learning the Basics


Photo courtesy Istockphoto / Christine Balderas

The McLeods work hard, play harder and run roping clinics in between. Their specialty concentrates on beginners and novice levels and, having watched inspirational teachers, clinicians and workshops in the horse industry worldwide, these two are dusted with a special intuitive connection that only the very best tap into when passing along knowledge and savvy.

They’ve been together fifteen years and grin at each other, bemused it seems, when I ask them the length of their relationship. Cattle, and mutual friends brought them together at the Stampede show grounds one hot July afternoon, they explain, laughing at memories and it’s pretty obvious this is how they savour life and teaching, always concentrating on the positives. 


Photo by Pam Asheton
You use different ropes for different disciplines; headers will generally use 30 – 32 foot ropes, heelers will aim at 32 – 35 foot ropes. For breakaway you go into a 25 foot calf rope, which is softer. Team ropes generally are nylon based and a different composition. The distance from the hand to the hondu is called the spoke. This particular photograph shows the correct hand position you’d use to swing the rope, and the coils in the hand are in progression (“or else,” says Vern, “the rope will get hopelessly tangled up”).

Vern, who’s worked for the City of Calgary’s Fire Department for over 18 years, has competed in Canada, the United States and Australia in club and rodeo competitions – usually breakaway and team roping – and roped now for over 38 years. His teaching rapport is particularly notable with beginners and novices. His clinics run over one or two days (the weekend numbers include a authentic old-style ranch barbecue, one-on-one and group tuition, and a CD of photographs highlighting each individual’s efforts) from the McLeod’s Grand Valley spread northwest of Cochrane. You can, he remarks proudly, never have picked up a rope in your life and not feel intimidated here. Participants bring their own horses that often have no rope savvy or cow knowledge (one 4-H club teaching day had one pony about the same size as the steer the kid was roping, and a Trakehner dressage horse even). Classes are small, working initially from the ground getting the feel of different ropes and basic throws with a roping dummy before progressing to ridden work in the 200’ long arena and 80’ round pen.



Photo by Pam Asheton
Hondu, Honda or also Hondo, and sometimes known too as ‘the (rawhide) burner’. This is one of the essential roping dictionary terms and refers to the the small loop-like knot on a lariat that allows the loop to slip open and closed.

“I like to encourage a safe, controlled environment,” he remarks mildly. Watching him run through procedures with a visiting friend, it’s obvious he gets people to aim at being self-analytical so they can go away and still work on their throws.

His ground and ridden work is experiential (this means there’s very little talk and totally go-and-do-it practical application). Authenticated research in teaching fields shows that if you explain and talk your subject, generally speaking your student absorbs ten per cent. Change that to experiential and the learning curve amazingly increases straight up to 90 per cent levels.



Photo by Pam Asheton
On the beginner’s course, pylons are placed on the ground where a basic loop is practiced. “One thing I do tell students,” Vern explained, “is that whatever your hand does with the rope that’s what the loop does, it just amplifies it.” Vern is demonstrating how to grab the rope and pull slack. His right hand has a cotton glove on for slide on the rope.

Lynn (who barrel races and competes wholeheartedly on the All Girls Rodeo circuit) also works full-time as secretary for the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), works tirelessly behind the scenes. A prime-time gifted organizer, she produces meal after meal right from the first coffee and morning breakfast at arrival time to lavish barbecue spreads, as well as snapping off several hundred candid digital photographs throughout the clinics for teaching purposes.



“People pick up their own style,” Vern finishes, “then you start working on little things. If they’re having a problem with what they’re doing, you change things and try and find what works for them, so they can have success. You’ve never seen such excitement as when they catch the first time! The best part for us is, people who come end up with a real passion.”


Photo by Pam Asheton
“Here we practice another basic maneuver, where you hang onto your rope and placing the loop over the horns, so you understand what your hands have to do when you throw a loop,” explains Vern, “I’d say most people get this kind of feeling usually by the time they’ve had a maximum of 25 throws.”

Pam Asheton regularly writes freelance for newspapers and magazines on horses, ranches, the backcountry and anything interesting in between; individuals passionate in their lives get her pen itching every time.






Photo by Pam Asheton
Lynn McLeod is concentrating on horse positioning here with the drag dummy (which weighs about 100 pounds or so), and where their roping school teaches heading horses to pull an object. “In addition to the heading horse,” says Vern, “it’s also now all about roping a cow off a horse for the first time in a safe controlled environment. It’s important to stand up in your stirrups and not lean forward.”




Photo by Pam Asheton
“Dallying here is done with proper thumbs up technique, and the rope goes counter-clockwise,” remarks Vern.




Photo by Pam Asheton
This shows the proper heel loop. “You have to stand up in the saddle,” grins Vern, “if you sit down it’s like trying to throw a loop from your favourite armchair, there’s no power in it.”


Photo by Pam Asheton
The heeler is pulling the slack up with the horse stopped and in position. The slack is kept tight (or else it just “runs” off the heels) and the hondu’s position is just about as good as it gets, with Lynn on the heading horse tightening forward (her rope will slip through the hand while she dallies). “This,” emphasizes Vern, “is one of the those moments with roping and fingers, where the thumb up position is critical, particularly in team roping. This is where people lose fingers and thumbs, and they’re kinda useful in day-to-day living.”



Photo by Pam Asheton
“It’s important,” says Vern, “to keep horses calm in the box area. It’s a high-stress zone for roping horses and it takes many hours of box work to get a horse trained and confident in there. If you can’t cultivate control going through a barrier, you’ve got nothing.” “This,” concludes Vern, “is a totally relaxed but alert horse which is how I finish off my roping sessions. I loosen the cinches and that’s his reward.”