Breaking Roping: 6 Essentials for a Fast Run

Breaking Roping: 6 Essentials for a Fast Run

Long before the string breaks, the fastest breakaway runs are affected by a litany of factors.

Abby Medlin breakaway roping (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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By Stephenie Tanguay

Whether you want to know how to start breakaway roping or you already compete and want to make yourself a better competitor, know this: The blink of an eye. That’s how fast a breakaway roping run happens.

The best runs stop the clock in a touch over 2 seconds, notes Abby Medlin.  

Handiness with a rope runs in Abby’s family: Her father, Jeff Medlin, qualified for both the 1991 and 1996 National Finals Rodeo in team roping, and her older brother, Logan Medlin, finished 24th on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s list of heelers in 2018.

Placing in the breakaway roping at the National High School Rodeo Association Finals as both a junior and a senior, Abby started her own collection of roping awards even earlier – around the time she first picked up a rope at age 5. More recent accomplishments include a second-place finish at the 2017 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo Invitational Breakaway Roping and fourth in the 2018 Three Star Memorial Breakaway Roping in Amarillo, Texas. Abby, a former member of the Tarleton State University rodeo team in Stephenville, Texas, also made it back to the semi-finals of the 2019 RFD-TV The American.

But 2- to 3-second runs don’t just happen. 

“My advice is to practice, practice, practice,” Abby says. “It all starts with dummy work. I have been roping for a while and still make it a priority to rope the dummy. Focus on the basics and create muscle memory, then carry that onto your horse so that you can put together a winning run.”

There are six essential tips Abby has noticed that affect her breakaway success.

Six Essentials to Winning in Breakaway Roping

1. The Breakaway Horse

Breaking down the breakaway roping run, Abby starts with the importance of her horse.

She has two breakaway horses, but explains, “I can’t really call one of them my backup, because I they are both pretty valuable to me. A good horse just makes it so much easier.”

HR Smart Tari (AB Smart Slick-Magical Tari by Pajarito Doc), whom Abby calls “Lefty,” is a stout 18-year-old bay gelding she has been roping on since junior high. He was trained by Abby’s dad, Jeff.

A small sorrel gelding dubbed “Catman” stands at 14 hands and completes her string. The 15-year-old sorrel, cutting-bred gelding is by High Brow Cat and out of Bunny Wood 696 by Zack T Wood.

What to Look for in a Breakaway Roping Horse

“Rope horses need to be quick-footed because they have to make such quick movements,” Abby says snapping her fingers.

“I look for horses like him,” she says, pointing to Catman, “horses that are stockier and built to stop.

“I happen to have (horses) that are a little older,” she says. “This is such a fast event. Having one that is not as experienced and maybe a little green can work for some people, but I like one to have a little experience under their belt. You don’t have to worry about your horse as much: You can just focus on your roping.”

Caring for and Conditioning Breakaway Roping Horses

Keeping horses in the best possible shape is Abby’s foundation for success.

“Whether it is exercise, icing and heating their legs, or their diet and supplements, I feel that my horses get better treatment than me sometimes,” Abby says with a laugh. “They play such a key role.”

In addition to maintaining her horses’ physical condition, Abby spends a significant amount of time preserving their minds.

(Want to learn more about scoring? Here world champion breakaway roper Lari Dee Guy explains the basics of scoring.) 

“Every horse is different,” Abby says, “but on  (Catman), when I am practicing, I score several head per session. I find myself practicing more for my horse than for me. I need to make sure he is working good and staying sharp.”

2. Properly Cared for Ropes

Originally hailing from a ranch in Tatum, New Mexico, Abby found the change in climate when she moved to Stephenville, Texas, to be a factor requiring an adjustment. Her use of powder on her ropes fluctuates in relation to the temperature and humidity.

“If it is really hot and humid, then it is sticky, and I do use a lot of powder,” she says. “The weather affects ropes so much, the cold and the heat, and how limber and stiff they are.

“In the fall, I don’t have to use powder as much, since it is colder and drier. But in the summer, I go through powder like crazy.”

Learn more about considerations when buying a rope.

3. Nail the Barrier

A competitive breakaway run takes place in under 3 seconds, with the best happening in 2 seconds.

“With our event as rapid fast as it can be, you have to be close to the barrier,” Abby explains.

Confident in her preparation, Abby concentrates on the start of her run.

“I get a practice run in my head of what I am going to see and how I am going to start my run off,” she says.

Variations in arenas may require a breakaway roper to modify the start.

“I like to get back there and watch the girls go in front of me, to get a feel for how much time I need to give the calf,” Abby says.

She evaluates each set up when determining how much of head start the calf needs.

“You can give him a step, or you may have to see more,” Abby explains. “Our event requires you to be so fast, you can’t really afford to give the calf too much of a head start, because you will end up being too long.”

Reading a calf to determine when it will leave the chute is a skill acquired by repetition. Abby’s advice? “Watch when the gate opens.”

And by watching other competitors, she can get a feel for what length is working – and what’s not.

“When the horse leaves, you determine a spot on the calf’s body that is even with the end of the opened chute. Was there an ear around the end of the gate or the point of the shoulder?

“One of the most important things is being close to the barrier and giving yourself the best opportunity to win.”

4. Know Your Venue: Rodeo vs. Jackpot

Rodeo runs are typically faster than those seen at a jackpot. The “one-and-done” atmosphere demands speed, speed and more speed. The strategy implemented at a jackpot allows for a little more time.

“In a rodeo-type setting where you only get one calf, when I am crossing the barrier line, I am looking for my throw,” Abby says. A maximum of two to four swings may keep the roper in the money at a rodeo.

“Now in a jackpot, it is a little different,” she compares. “You don’t have to be as fast. When you get three or four calves, you can run close and get them caught.

“In the rodeo, you definitely have to be looking for your first shot and be ready to take it.”

5. Score at Home So Your Horse Is Ready for the Box

“I try not to spend too much time in the box, because then my horse may get nervous and not score as well,” Abby reveals.

“When I back in there, I make sure my horse’s butt is in the corner and up against the back bar of the box. I have my reins snug, making sure I have control of my horse. As soon as I release the pressure from my reins, that is when I want my horse leaving – right off my hand.

“That is one reason I tend to score lots of calves in the practice pen, so I know that my horse is responding to my left hand at all times.”

Even though breakaway roping is an individual sport, it takes a team to stop the clock in only a couple of seconds.

“Usually, someone is standing there (in the box) with me,” Abby says. That individual informs Abby if her horse is not standing in the correct position and helps keep the animal calm.

“I usually have somebody in the chute, pushing the calf to the front,” Abby continues. The chutes can be large when compared to the small stature of the average breakaway calf. “You want the calf standing up and to the front of the chute so that the calf is ready to go when you nod your head.”

Scoring calves in the practice pen is essential so on game day, Abby’s horses know to wait in the box and respond to the drop of her left hand, which is their cue to go.

6. Putting the Breakaway Roping Run Together

Breakaway rules state that the catch must be a bell collar, meaning the loop should not include any legs, the body or the tail of the calf. An easily broken string is tied from the end of the rope to the saddlehorn. When the string breaks, the flag is dropped, and the time is called.

A keen awareness of her own ability and an understanding of how fast she needs to be is necessary.

“If the times get really fast, then I am aware that I might have to reach, resulting in throwing more rope than I typically like to,” Abby explains.

The Throw

Abby concentrates on the base of the calf’s neck, right where she wants her loop to go.

“I know my capability and how far I am able to throw my rope, and how confident I am at each distance,” she says. “Whenever I get to the point where I am comfortable to pull the shot off, that’s when I throw.”

The Run

Abby asks her horses to run their hardest as they cross the line, then stop with equal effort.

“They know they need to get stopped as soon as they can. They really do an incredible job,” she says with admiration.

The Stop

“Once you have thrown your rope, that is when your horse is trying to stop. It all comes together so fast so there is not a lot of spare time to think,” Abby says.

“Once I throw the rope, I’m looking to make sure my loop goes around the calf’s neck.”

After you throw your rope, your horse should be trying to stop.

Pulling the Slack

Following the throw, the slack is then pulled.

Abby looks to make sure her loop goes around the calf’s neck. Then the slack is pulled.

 

“Most people pull their slack and pitch it in the air or back toward the calf because it takes the spare slack out of the rope.”

While staying up in the front of the saddle, Abby grasps her slack with her hand facing down.

“That can tell you a lot. If your delivery is wrong, then your hand won’t be flat,” she says, explaining the need for smooth and continuous movements during the run.

Abby pitches the slack up, taking the slack out of the rope.

Sit Down

Simultaneous with the pull of her slack, Abby starts sitting down in her saddle. At that point in the run, “I push into my stirrups, readying myself for my horse’s stop.”

As she is releasing the slack in the rope, Abby sits deep in her saddle as she prepares for her horse to stop.

While staying up in the front of the saddle, Abby grasps her slack with her hand facing down to further release the string tying the end of the rope to her horn. At this point, she is sitting down in her seat, weight in her stirrups, prepared for the horse to stop

 

“I don’t like my horse to pop up,” she says. “I want his front end to stay on the ground as he is stopping. It makes it easier on me, and the less I have to worry about my horse, the easier it is for me to do my job.”

And to make those fast, buckle-winning catches.