Learn the Ropes with Julie Goodnight

Improve your rope-handling skills with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
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Improve your rope-handling skills with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.


Photo by Heidi Melocco Most riders aren't natural rope handlers. But if you trail ride, knowing how to handle a rope in addition to your reins can come in quite handy. You may need to pull a log out of the way, or pull logs to and from your camp for fire or shelter.

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Becoming adept at rope handling also helps you safely pony a horse on the trail. This skill comes in handy if you have children with you, need to help an injured friend, and when you're introducing a young or green horse to the trail. (For more on ponying with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight, see "Pony With Confidence," Natural Horsemanship, The Trail Rider, September/October '09).

When you pony a horse, you'll hold the reins and the extra coil of lead rope in one hand and the ponied horse's lead rope in the other, all while controlling both horses. This can get complicated, so the better you are at rope handling, the better you'll be able to pony a horse.


Photo by Heidi MeloccoHands-On Strategies
Follow these strategies to hone your rope-handling skills.

Photo by Heidi Melocco

1. Buy a lariat. Go to a tack store that sells roping supplies, and buy a used lariat. (You'll typically spend $10 to $15).

2. Ask for help. Ask an experienced roper show you how to build a loop, throw, and recoil your rope. You might be able to find someone at the tack store. Or, find someone at a team-roping club nearby. To find a club, consult the tack store's bulletin board, ask around, and go online.

3. Watch ropers. Watch the team ropers who practice weekly in your area. (Leave your horse at home.) You'll see that they coil and uncoil their ropes over and over-even when there's no horse or cow in sight.

4. Practice. Set up a bale of hay and practice making a loop, throwing the rope, and recoiling and organizing the ropes in your hands. Throw the loop so it lands flat on the ground at your target in a perfect open loop. Get into the rhythm of coiling and uncoiling. You don't need to be a perfect roper and hit each target. Your goal is to master the coiling and recoiling so that you'll be safe as you ride and handle extra rope.

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Throw and Ride
For an added challenge, make sure your horse is fine with you throwing the rope near his shoulder, then practice throwing and recoiling the rope as you ride. Guide your horse as you handle, release, and recoil the rope. You don't need to aim at anything; just get used to handling the rope as well as your reins.

Important note: As you ride, you might wish to dally (wrap) the rope around your saddle horn. However, before you do so, take rope-handling lessons from an experienced horseperson. This is a high-level skill for which you need proper training. You'll need to know what to do with the dally if your mount or ponied horse spooks to avoid a wreck.

Snap the Rope
To further improve your rope-handling skills, practice snapping the end of your training lead at a target, just as you'd snap someone with a wet towel.

To do so, hold the coils of a 12- to 15-foot training lead in your left hand and toss (snap) the lash end of the rope at a target, recoiling after each throw. Practice until you can touch the tip of your lash to any target.

Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She's also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).

Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Longmont, Colorado.