Use Roping to Train Cow Horses

Use Roping to Train Cow Horses

Trainer Justin Wright uses a rope as an educational tool for young horses.

A man swings a rope while riding a bay horse

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Annie Lambert

California horseman Justin Wright beefs up his training by working a rope into his program. All of his futurity-bound reined cow horses are introduced to a rope during their first few rides, and Justin continues to use it as a training tool at least halfway through their third year. His performance prospects are using horses before they figure out they’re show horses. 

“When horses get stagnant – or just get bored – with our day-to-day training program, we’ll doctor cattle or mess around with roping in the round pen,” Justin explains. “Roping gives horses a job to do – and it’s probably as much for us as it is the horses. It’s something different, just go have fun.” 

Learning to work a rope gets young horses tracking cattle without worry, he points out, as he prepares to demonstrate. And, as if on cue, when his assistant relaxes his loop and clips his green 2-year-old on the rump and tail with his rope, the Cats Merada colt never bats an eye. It’s apparent that roping off the colts definitely takes the spook out of them.

Most of Justin’s 2- and 3-year-old trainees are used to doctor, brand and move cattle on the ranch. 

Dallying a cow to a 2-year-old teaches that colt how to balance his body and handle a cow. If the colt is stopping on his front feet rather than using his hind end, or if he isn’t serious about stopping, Justin lets the colt feel the weight of the cow and the pressure of the rope on the saddle horn. 

“We’ll rope one around the neck and trot around the pen,” he explains. “When we quit riding, those colts figure out how to get back on their butts to stop that cow. They learn to stop in one day. A 2-year-old that’s just starting to stop will figure out how to get on his hind end. He quickly learns it relieves the pressure on the saddle.” 

When he’s trying to soften a colt’s responses in the rein work, roping provides a similar benefit. If a colt is tough or resistant to being guided, Justin puts a head rope on a cow in the pen and tracks it around at a lope. When the cow stops, the horse stops. When the cow turns, the horse turns. Instead of demanding the stop and turn, tying the activity to a cow’s movement with a rope between them helps the colt figure it out for himself without a lot of pulling from the rider. It turns into a sort of game, and the colts begin to crave the stops and directional changes.

Importantly, Justin and his crew don’t rope on the youngsters enough to make their backs sore. And that connection to a cow quickly teaches them how to find that relief. They definitely figure out they cannot stop the cow with their weight shifted onto their front ends. The way to do it is to rotate the weight to their hindquarters. 

“As soon as they lift their shoulders and push their weight to the back, it’s easy for them to stop that cow,” says Justin, “and shifting the horse’s weight to the back is the ticket to every maneuver.” 

Justin demonstrates one of his roping exercises from atop his 2017 National Reined Cow Horse Association Derby champion, Lil Bay Hawk. He ropes a heifer, then turns her back and forth on a short section of round pen fence, almost like boxing. Each time they change direction, Justin flips the rope over the gelding’s head so the rope is on the off-cow side of the neck with each turn. 

“We do this on our 2- and 3-year-olds,” Justin explains. “We let that rope just kind of pull them around and let them face up to that cow. 

“It is kind of cool to work a cow and have the horse be distracted by the rope, yet still stay focused (on the cow),” he adds. 

Justin Wright, riding a bay horse, heads a heifer and tracks it down the fence

Justin heads a heifer and tracks it down the fence, demonstrating that his 3-year-old has learned his tracking and rating lessons. He’s squared up and balanced.

Justin Wright, riding a bay colt, flips the rope to the off-cow side of the horse’s neck prior to turning

Justin flips the rope to the off-cow side of the horse’s neck prior to turning so it applies neck-rein-like pressure if his horse hesitates or drifts.

a bay colt, ridden by Justin Wrights, learns how to stop and turn while roping a cow

The off-side rope keeps Justin from having to pick on his colt for little things and reminds the colt to stay closely in step with his dance partner.

Learning to work off the hindquarters helps horses in every maneuver. When Justin dallied and stopped, his horse had to use himself to hold the cow. His job has purpose.