Rope Horse Training: Correcting A Cheating Head Horse

Rope Horse Training: Correcting A Cheating Head Horse

Heading horses can pick up bad habits. Here are some horse-training tips to fix one of them.

team roping practice (Credit: AQHA)

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It’s easy for head horses to pick up bad habits. Going through the training motions of heading can be repetitive, and a horse that anticipates the next move can either focus and dig into the task at hand, or go for the easy way out and cheat to make the maneuver easier. Many times, it’s the latter.

One problem that some head horses pick up is cheating on the pull. Here’s how to tell if your horse is cheating and how you can fix it.

An Ideal Run

  • In an ideal heading run, the horse runs up and rates off the steer when you rope. When you dally, you want to pick up on that horse and feel him collect on his rear end for the set for the heeler.
  • The horse should start slowing the steer while they’re both moving forward. After you set the steer, start logging him across the pen.
  • The horse’s collection should still be in the rear end as he’s turning and logging. The rope will come across the rider’s leg, and the pull stays to the side and behind the horse as we log. This is how the horse handles the steer, and it’s a big mark on the scorecard.

When you give the horse the signal, you want him to:

  • collect
  • plant a back leg 
  • come around and face

After horses have faced a few times, though, they start anticipating it. When the rope comes tight, they’re collecting themselves and preparing for the face, and you don’t have to rein the horse around.

The head horse’s job is to be in control of the situation. When a good head horse is in the wrong position, he’ll step over to be in the right position.

How They Cheat

It’s easier for horses to give to the steer than to work and bring the steer to them. That’s where they’ll start anticipating and cheat. 

When you start to rope, an anticipating head horse is turning his body away and already starting the turn. When the horse bends at the ribs and takes the jerk and log from the side, he can be pulled over. 

  • He’s not handling the steer; he’s letting the steer handle him. 
  • He’s drifting and giving to the steer. 
  • He’s off-balance, and he only has two of his feet to take the jerk instead of all four.

Then, the steer gets behind him without ever having been handled, and the rope goes behind the horse.

If the rope goes across the horse’s rear end instead of across the roper’s leg

  • It’s harder for the horse to log the steer across the pen and set for the heeler. 
  • The head horse has to come around farther to face, and that maneuver isn’t as clean either.

Some horses start pulling away as the roper delivers the loop, changing the target and not giving the roper a chance to catch. Then the roper starts reaching or delivering early, and he wonders why he’s not winning.

If that’s happening, you don’t have to give up. You just need to fix the horse.

How To Fix It

  • For a horse with a cheating problem, stop a lot of steers. Come out of the box as if it’s a normal run, and when you get to the steer, as you feel the horse bending, straighten him out before you rope. Move his ribs back over and get him straight in line with the steer so the horse is running straight, not sideways.
  • Then stop the steer, going back to basics. If the horse has been cheating for a while, the first thing he’s going to want to do when you rope is move his rear end sideways as you stop. Stop straight again and again until you can keep him straight between your legs and the horse doesn’t get sideways. 

A horse can handle the steer much better straight on, if he’s facing forward first, the steer is in front of him and the rope is tight. He has all four feet on the job and he’s in charge, just like a good heading horse should be.