No, not to the dark side, though some ropers might think so at first glance. Or listen, as the case may be. This blog post is a companion piece to an interview I did with John Harrer over on the Whoa Podcast, where I mentioned that the fastest loop in breakaway roping is often in the cross-over. (Helpful hint: the podcast at the top of the page is not mine. Scroll down past all the blah-blah about me and find Episode #49). Yes, I see all of you tie down ropers shuddering at the thought of roping a calf as your horse is moving left. Hang on. I'll explain.
And now all of my non-rodeo, non-roper readers are scratching their heads and wondering if I'm going to repeat that in English. Yes I am. With diagrams. And photos. And video.
First off, for the real greenhorns, what the heck is breakaway roping? Well, it's a version of calf roping where the rider doesn't have to dismount and tie the calf. The rope is secured to the saddle horn with a piece of string. When the loop goes around the calf's neck the roper pitches their slack and lets the rope go. The calf hits the end of the rope, the string breaks away from the saddle horn, and time stops. Hence the name of the event. When all goes well, it looks like this:
Breakaway is the fastest event in rodeo, not counting those bullriders who get drilled into the ground on the first jump out of the chute. And contrary to what many people think, it is NOT just tie down roping without the flank and tie. The most important difference is where you throw your rope. For a breakaway roper, that's gotta be as soon as you're within reach, regardless of the position. When it takes a run of less than three seconds to even place in the money, there's no time to be picky. The best breakaway ropers master the art of catching as they're running up on the calf and have a horse that'll let them hang out and throw a long loop at a hard running critter.
By contrast, a tie down roper will take an extra swing to get his horse, the calf and his slack all lined out. The half second he sacrifices is more than made up by being smoother through the dismount, flank and tie. His horse is trained to run in closer to the calf then slam on the brakes when the loop goes past his head, leaving the roper time to manipulate the slack in the rope so the calf spins around but stays on its feet, ready to be flanked.
In a nutshell, a tie down roper can make up time on the ground. A breakaway roper's gotta get that loop out of her hand as fast as possible.
And that brings us to the crossover. That magic slot right out in front of the roping chute where your horse's trajectory crosses the calf's. Why a cross? Because the horse leaves the roping box traveling at an angle compared to the calf, like so:
This is the sweet spot, but it's also where you can get into a whole lot of trouble if you're not riding your horse properly. Throwing while your horse is moving left in comparison with the calf is fine and dandy on one condition--you can't let her keep going left. If you do, over time what started out as a winning throw will turn into a horse that drops its left shoulder and ducks out before you can get the loop out of your hand.
How do you keep a horse honest? Most of it happens in the practice pen. For every throw you take in the crossover, you make at least two or three runs where you take a couple of extra swings and make the horse move back to the right to line in straight behind the calf. Even on the quick throws, you keep pressure on your horse with your left foot, pushing them back to the right as they stop.
But what if your horse is bound and determined to duck left? After all, everything is set up to push them that direction. You're swinging and throwing with your right hand, pitching your slack on their right side. How do you persuade them to stay straight?
First off. look at how your horse is positioned in the roping box. You want them to run to the front corner of the roping chute because that's the shortest distance between you and the calf. Start with the horse's nose pointed at that spot, they'll break out of the box in the lead that's most comfortable for them. Start with their nose pointed at the middle of the box, they'll either run to that spot, or they'll start in their left-hand lead to move toward the chute. Start with the horse angled toward the back of the chute, they'll start in their right-hand lead to adjust.
Why is that important? Because, as master rope horse trainer Bub Tate pointed out, a horse can't duck left if they're in their right-hand lead. So whether it's leaving the box or running up behind the calf, if you can use leg pressure to put your horse in the right-hand lead, they won't go left when you throw your rope.
Tricky? You bet, considering you're also swinging a rope, operating a set of reins and trying to take steady aim at a calf. But if you're a breakaway roper and you want to keep getting that money shot in the crossover, it's a trick you need to master.
If you'd like to see what it looks like done really well, here's some excellent footage from the Indian National Finals Rodeo (Take note of Megan Lunak at the 1:07 mark, that's our hometown girl from up here on the Blackfeet Reservation).
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