Doc West returns with his sage advice for the lost and lonely gunsel.
Q. Doc West, explain if you will, the nuances of difference between ranch roping and team roping?
A. The answer to this question if asked a few years ago would have been as simple as team roping is what the cowboys do at the rodeo, and ranch roping is what the cowboys do back at the ranch. Today however, ranch roping has grown into a popular “off circuit” competitive event that has reached an almost cultish status complete with its own set of rules and even governing associations. As a general observation both competitive events are similar in the sense a team (usually two, but sometimes three) of cowboys (or cowgirls) on horseback armed with ropes or lassos embark upon the act of roping a bovine. However, that is where the similarities end and the many differences begin: for example, team ropers rope a single isolated steer, ranch ropers pick a target out of a herd; team ropers start in the box and blast forward in pursuit of a running target, ranch ropers meander at a walk through a herd. Team roping is a timed event where runs are won or lost on a fraction of a second, ranch roping is scored on a point system of bonuses and penalties, so long as you get your calf roped within the time limit – a generous three or four minutes.
Differences in rules and regulations do little justice to what is a truer answer to such a question – a long meandering tale that does not easily lend itself to this column’s short and glossy smartly edited words, as it finds its beginnings 500 hundred years ago when conquistadors such as Cortes and Coronado and De Soto were the first explorers to bury into the North American continent in search of gold to take, but paradoxically leaving a much finer gift, the Spanish horse. Spain’s colonization of the new world brought with it the hacienda system of ranching, which gave life to the pillar of that system, the vaquero. Of Spanish origin and Mexican blood, the vaquero trailed up the Baja travelling the El Camino Real into California, where the gentle climate over time molded the California vaquero into its own unique creation – the “California Tradition” of the American cowboy. Later yet, when the big ranches in California started breaking up, many of the California vaqueros moved northward once again and spread out into the “Buckaroo-dom” of the great basin region of Nevada, Oregon and Idaho where the traditions evolved once more. As a collective, the California Tradition – the vaqueros and buckaroo’s are first and oldest cowboys – Spanish in origin and Mediterranean in mentality.
In the California tradition, style rules supreme – flat hats, silvered spade bits, rawhide romel reins, bossels and hackamores, elaborately finessed loops, and a horse tuned as finely as a Swiss watch. A vaquero was not just a hired cowpuncher, he was a caballero, a citizen, a gentleman, an aristocrat of the saddle. An emphasis on form and lifestyle permeated Spanish cowboying where cattle were moved leisurely over the rolling green hills, “it took as long as it took” – if it didn’t get done today, there was always mañana or tomorrow. Modern day ranch roping is a derivative of the vaquero traditions and those high plains riders, and the nature of the competition is rooted in the west coast mindset that faster is not always better; cattle were roped slowly, methodically and with as little stress on the animal as possible – 60-foot lariats are dallied to a leather wrapped pommel which allowed a soft catch and the ability to let loose if things got hairy.
The second part of this story finds its genesis in the mid 1800’s when Anglo settlers moved westward into historic Spanish territory and took up ranching, initially in the great plains of Texas. The English adopted the many of the fine vaquero cowboy traditions, however many of these were modified to adapt to a much more unforgiving environment and gave birth to what is known as the “Texas Tradition” – or as modern lore has coined simply as “the cowboy.” Over time the Texan style also spread – following the great cattle herds driven north up the Rockies eastern slopes into the wilds of Wyoming, Montana and across the 49th into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Cowboys of the Texas Tradition were practical individuals, not as concerned with the “how” as with the “is.” By way of example where the California Vaquero enjoyed a pleasant climate they could work all day and mañana too, by contrast most cowpunchers were beat by the panhandle sun into sweltering goo by noon, as such most cowboying needed to be done quickly and efficiently in the morning hours – there was no mañana for the Texas cowboy. Tack was practical and tough, durable clothing that could take thorns, basic working bits, heavy leather split reins, plain saddles, gritty cowponies and maybe a saddle gun too. The Texan roped hard and fast. The big “purdy” open country throws favoured by the buckaroos were impracticable in prairie scrub, cowboys ropes were shorter, throws were tighter and faster, ropes were often tied on to the saddle horn as dallying was deemed too slow and according to the seasoned cowpuncher were reserved for those afraid to commit. The team roping that we all see in rodeos is all about two things, making the catch and how fast you did it. In the Texan Tradition that’s all that mattered on the range and that’s all that matters in the arena.