Ask a ranch hand how to tell if someone’s a good cowboy and he’ll say the proof is in his lassoing. The rope has always been “the long arm of the cowboy,” writes Midland native John R. Erickson in Catch Rope. Though roping began on the ranch as a way to catch stray calves or round them up for branding, it demanded such precision and dexterity (and sparked so much bragging) that it gave rise to a competitive sport. Now a mainstay of rodeos, tie-down roping—it’s no longer called calf roping—is one of the most highly respected contests at events such as this month’s Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. Contestants try to chase, catch, and immobilize a 250-pound calf in the least amount of time possible.
The lariat has an eye, or a honda, tied at one end, through which the other end is threaded to form a big loop (4 to 6 feet in diameter). The 25-foot rope is generally a 10-millimeter-thick, 3- or 4-ply polyester cord (to limit stretching) with a stiffness, or lay, of extra-soft, soft, or firm. To throw, “move your wrist in a counterclockwise direction and swing above your head,” advises Stran Smith, of Childress, who is currently ranked fifth in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings for tie-down roping. “For the rope to hit your target, don’t throw to a broad area. Throw to a specific place—in this case, to the back of the calf’s head.” Avoid catching other body parts in the lasso, known as “trash in the loop,” as this will affect your time.
To compete, enter the box, mount your horse, prime the lariat (with the loop loose for throwing and the other end tied to your saddle horn), and clench the piggin’ string, a 6.5-foot cord you’ll use to tie the calf, firmly in your teeth. Nod your head to signal the calf’s release into the arena and to start the clock. (Don’t exit the box before the animal runs or you’ll get a 10-second penalty.) Charge into fifth gear, rope the calf, leap off your horse, throw down the animal, and wrap three legs—generally a front one and the two back ones, instructs Smith—with the piggin’ string. The tying method, involving two loops and a knot, is referred to as “two wraps and a hooey.” To signal that your work is done, throw your hands in the air; this stops the clock. The calf has 6 seconds to break free; if it escapes, you are disqualified.
A typical winning time will fall under 9 seconds; the world record is 5.7 seconds. Clocking the fastest speed can earn you anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000. (Rodeoing is difficult work that can pay off, so to speak—in 2008 the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo had a total purse of about $5.6 million.) So while mamas don’t want their babies to grow up to be cowboys, the prize money (Trevor Brazile, of Decatur, earned $425,114 in 2007, the single-season record for most money earned) and fame (ESPN has broadcast the NFR from Las Vegas since 1994) sometimes prove too strong a lure.