However the origins of the rodeos we know and love today trace all the way back to Spain.
Spanish cowboys, called vaqueros, were racing and competing at their stock shows before America was even colonized (2).
While similar to team roping, calf roping is an individual sport comprised of a team of one horse and rider.
Calf roping, also called tie down roping, entails roping a calf while mounted, hopping off, flanking the calf and tying three legs together.
Like so many rodeo sports, calf roping was originally just another job that had to be done on the ranch. Cowboys needed to rope and stabilize injured or sick calves, quickly to avoid undue stress on the animal, in order to treat them.
Over time cowboys began competing among themselves to see who was the fastest and so the sport of calf roping was born.
Modern Calf Roping
Today the sport is much more complex than a few cowboys testing each other, tie down roping is now a recognized sport regulated by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. It is a timed event in which the horse and rider must chase the calf, rope and catch it, flank it, and tie three of the legs together.
Scoring and placement depend solely on how long it takes the roper to complete these tasks. However, it is not always the fastest man who wins but the roper with the cleanest fast run.
In this sport the time on the clock does not always correlate with skill of the roper. The sport is divided into divisions, which are based on the skill and capabilities of the roper as well as their average time it takes to complete a go around. In lower divisions smaller and weaker calves are used which can make it seem like the contestant is faster than they are, because of this ropers in different divisions are incomparable (3).
Starting the Roping Chase
The horse and roper start behind a mechanical electric barrier and must stay behind the barrier while the calf gets a head start. The length of the head start is different in every arena as it is calculated depending on the size of the arena. After the head start the roper begins the chase by breaking the electric barrier, starting the time clock, and getting his or her rope swinging.
Being in the box waiting to go can be the hardest part of the run. Horses get antsy and can jump the gun by leaving the box too early resulting in a penalty. But then again having too calm of a horse or one on its haunches makes them slow out of the box, loosing the rider some time (4).
How do you rope a calf?
Roping the calf is basically getting what you can get, once the rope is in contact with the calf, the roper dismounts and runs over to flank and tie the calf leaving the rest to the horse.
The roper must trust his or her horse to do its job and hold the calf stable with a tight rope while they run to the calf and begin tying.
Here the horse has to continue backing up to keep just the right tension on the rope, if it fails to do this not only will there be penalties but the a slack rope leads to a longer time.
This part of the go around showcases the skill of not only the roper but the horse as well.
A well trained and skilled horse is able to keep just the right amount of tension on the rope to keep the calf immobile without dragging it, all the while preventing any slack in the rope whatsoever.
The great roping horses are amazing athletes and worth the price of admission alone.
Take a look at a great roping horse in action.
Flanking and Tying
If the calf is standing when the contestant reaches it they only have to throw it down on its side, or “flank”, to begin tying.
However, if the calf has been knocked down by the sudden pull back from the horse and rope, the calf must be picked up so that at least 3 legs are hanging straight down before being flanked.
In a sport where tenths of seconds make all the difference, the ability for a horse to keep the rope taut without knocking down the calf is a valuable time saver.
Saving the roper the time and trouble of picking up the calf before flanking is one mark of a great calf roping horse.
Once down, the roper quickly gathers and ties at least three of the legs together with the pigging string the roper holds between their teeth.
The contestant then puts their hands up, showing they are done and stopping the timer.
For the time to be valid the roper must remount the horse, move to create slack in the rope, and show that the ties remain secure for at least 6 seconds.
If at any time during the 6 seconds the rope becomes taut the timer will start up again until slack is returned to the rope.
The ideal tie is fast but the roper must make sure the three legs are crossed and that he ties it well enough to keep.
Calf Roping Penalties
Penalties are given in the form of extra time so precision is just as important as speed in this sport.
For example, a 10 second penalty is given if the roper starts before the calf gets its full head start, a 2 second penalty is given if the horse allows for slack in the rope and 1 second penalty for every 3 feet the horse drags the calf.
There are more timed penalties for things like jumping the barrier or running into the calf but these are more uncommon.
While disqualification or runs given no time are more uncommon than timed penalties, there are still rules which are detrimental to break.
The easiest way to get no time is if the tie comes loose or the legs become uncrossed at any time after the roper signals his completion.
Other offenses which will result in a no score are dragging the calf more than 12 feet, whipping the horse with the rope, or attempting to rope the calf from inside the box.
If you think it sounds easy, check out this calf roping fail.
It’s All in How You Score
Scoring is the length of the head start the calf gets at the beginning of the go around.
This amount is calculated by the judge but each roper must calculate the length themselves.
A miscalculation could mean a penalty for starting too early or the disadvantage of extra time for going too late, both of which the roper is trying to avoid.
Getting out of the box at precisely the right time can make or break a ride and having a horse that scores well is vital.
Again the horse cannot be too excited or too slow when the smallest fractions of time make all the difference. A horse that scores well also listens well, since the score is different in every arena the horse must respond to the rider instead of running on its own accord.
What You Need to Win
The most important piece of equipment needed in this sport is a well trained, competitive roping horse with a lot of heart.
Horses are like people and some simply have a natural talent for competing and almost naturally work with the rider to complete the best go around as possible.
For the most part, tie down roping does not require all that much equipment.
There are only 2 ropes used, the one to catch the calf and the one to tie its legs together (called a tie-down rope or pigging string).
The roper is allowed to wear spurs but they must be dull, other than that there is not much extra equipment needed in this sport (5).
There are a few extra pieces of tack which are required for safety of the roper and horse like a keeper and neck rope (6).
Both of these pieces are used to keep the horse facing the calf and prevent the rope from being too close to the horse’s legs.
Safety of the Sport
Overall tie down roping is pretty safe for both the roper and horse, no harsh tack or over exertion is put upon the horse.
However, understandably, there is debate over the treatment of the calf in this sport. The calves used are between 220-280 pounds so it does not hurt them to be flanked or simply tied together.
As for jerking the calf down from the force of the rope, there is a bit more controversy.
In order to keep up with the times and continue attracting new audiences the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has put a fine on violating the new jerk-down rule which entails roping the calf in a way that jerks it onto its back.
Whether you go to a calf roping or a tie down roping event, you are in for a great show. The cowboys, cowgirls, and horses are real athletes that put on a great show.
Fred is the editor of Equine Ridge. He grew up raising horses and has been riding, training, and competing for almost four decades. Fred started out performing on the AQHA and PHBA circuits. Fred trained other competitors in English and Western riding disciplines and today offers free riding lessons to youth who would otherwise not be able to afford lessons. When not working with horses he can be found backpacking or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Email Fred at firstname.lastname@example.org