In a Sow’s Ear
Put a herd of ropin’ cowboys and cowgirls together on horseback in an arena with a bunch of 1,000-pound steers and you’ve either got a John Wayne movie in the making or a ranch roping. At a recent ranch roping I attended the big arena had been partitioned off with those steel panels that require a lot of upper body strength to move from here to there.
In one end, the little bunch of steers huddled together, ears and tails flicking nervously. You just knew each bovine was thinking, “don’t pick me, don’t pick me” as a team of three riders, each swinging a loop advanced upon them. A fourth rider, holding aloft a red-bandanna flag, watched, ready to lower it with a snap of his wrist when the team successfully caught the designated animal or ran out of time.
Judges kept score from their elevated position on a flatbed trailer, parked parallel to the steel-panel partition. A canopy had been erected over the flatbed to keep the judges from melting in the hot sun.
The action in the other half of the arena was a kaleidoscope of color and sound. Dozens of riders mounted on horses ” bays, browns, Palominos, grays, sorrels, duns, buckskins ” gathered in conversational groups or warmed up their mounts or practiced throwing loops. There was enough testosterone galloping around, you could have loaned some out to some of those needy marathon bike athletes (John Wayne would have been proud).
Ropes, lariats, or lassos, I discovered are not at all standard either in lengths or the material they’re made from. A 25 foot rope can sometimes leave a roper surprised when the calf he’s going for happens to be 30 feet beyond the end of his arm. Sixty feet is most popular among ranch ropers, so I’m told, but length is a matter of preference for most.
Traditional ropes can be twisted fibers of hemp, flax or other vegetable material ” referred to as “grass” ropes. Some ropes are of braided rawhide, some of horsehair, especially popular in the early days. In present times, you can purchase hard-twisted nylon rope. Whatever the construction, ropes were, and are, essential to a working cowhand.
For an excellent reference on cowboy gear, I recommend “The Cowboy Encyclopedia” by Bruce Grant. “In the old days in the Southwest, a good cowboy was called uno buena reata or ‘a good rope.’ To a Texan, a rope is a rope. In the North, the term lariat was used, a term derived from la reata, meaning a rope of twisted fibers. In the Southwest ‘lariat’ meant a short stake rope. Cowboys also called fiber ropes a hard twist, whale line, lass rope, catch rope or throw rope.
“Fiber ropes range in sizes from three-eighths of an inch to one-half an inch in diameter. Smaller ones are used for roping calves and the larger for roping steers and horses. Fiber catch ropes vary from 35 to 50 feet in length.
“The reata ” often termed ‘riata’ is a rope made from four to eight braided strings or ‘whangs’ of rawhide. This is a rope a cowboy can make himself. A newly made reata is stiff. To soften, it is soaked in warm tallow or other animal oil, then placed around a smooth post and pulled back and forth until it becomes pliable. Reatas are still made but are now used more for show, hanging from the horn of a fancy saddle, than for practical roping.”
Regardless of style, length or composition of a lariat, it can also be a dangerous tool. If you see a working cowboy who has a hand with a thumb missing, chances are he was attacked by a rogue rope. Ropers can suffer lacerations on their palms, rope burns across their rib cage areas, gouges in their thighs, all from having ropes zip, slash and tear. Some punchers wear light cotton gloves on their rope-swinging hand; some use leather gloves. Most grab on bare-handed. However it’s done, roping is a requirement for the working cowhand, or as Bruce Grant put it, “The early cowboy was as helpless without his rope as a hunter without a gun.”
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