In My Boots: Learning the ropes

As far as Phys. Ed. courses go, Alfred University’s “Western IV” sounds like a blast. Especially, Kristen Kovatch explains, when it comes to this particular segment of the class.

From Kristen:


My favorite class to teach each spring semester at the Alfred University equestrian center is Western IV: We cover western training techniques for getting a responsive and light horse, introduce reining, experiment with running barrels and poles, and learn to rope and work cattle. My current class group includes a few born-and-raised western riders, but also a pair of diehard eventers trying a little cross-training for fun and a show jumper from Israel seeking to broaden his horizons. We are in the middle of our roping unit right now, foreign territory for everyone in the class no matter what discipline they normally ride, and we are lucky enough to have an expert in the neighborhood to help me teach.

Our resident roper, Dick Knapp, is not what you’d picture when you think about a cowboy: a short and squat little old man constantly sporting a trucker’s cap and a dirty jacket (the pockets of which I suspect contain fishing lures; the man is more of a fisherman than a horseman in his quiet retirement.) He’s quite a prankster, constantly getting himself into trouble with strangers and friends alike. He’s got a great cackling laugh that he exercises often. Ultimately, he looks and acts like everyone’s favorite great-uncle. From looking at him you would not imagine that he’s got an All-American Quarter Horse Congress championship title for calf roping–but put a rope in his hands and you’ll soon see why.

He can carry on a conversation, making eye contact the entire time as he twirls a loop over his head, laughing and joking with you casually and then with a swish and a snap he’s got the practice steer in a stranglehold. He’ll kneel down next to the wooden dummy to demonstrate tying up a calf and if you blink you’ll miss it completely. He can spot the weaknesses in my students as they work their ropes and is quick to make a suggestion or two that has them throwing the loop like rookie pros in minutes.

Roping is more complicated than it looks–merely waving the loop above your head in an imitation of a Hollywood cowboy and giving it a good chuck won’t catch you anything. The rope must be worked in such a way that when it is thrown, it will fly wide open and land flat, preferably around the neck or leg of the runaway calf you’re attempting to catch. Generally my Western IV class spends the first half hour just working the rope, trying to capture the perfect twist in the wrist to let them throw a big, beautiful loop. Realistically, they spend a large part of class time untangling themselves and their classmates, unkinking their twisted coils, and laughing with each other as they miss or catch the straw-bale calf again and again. Most of them have gotten pretty sharp in just two class meetings, managing a catch every two out of three throws. In a few more classes they’ll be ready to sit on my cowhorse mare and practice roping the bale as I drag it slowly around the arena with the ATV. That’s about as exciting as the class will get–by avoiding roping actual calves, we avoid having to learn to dally and greatly reduce the risk of popping off students’ thumbs. Campus administration is generally okay with this decision.

The last half hour of the class inevitably becomes Story Time. We all gather around Dick–myself and my coworkers included–and listen to him reminisce about cowboys he knew, his mentors and teachers who helped him learn to rope. He’ll laugh about how no one believed that a little cowboy from New York could win the Congress–and how they all thought that by New York he meant NYC rather than a little farm town called Hornell.

The best class so far was when Dick demonstrated the horse catches he learned from vaqueros in Texas and California. Standing in a corral full of horses and waving a rope over one’s head holds all sorts of dire consequences, not the least of which is the fact that one won’t actually be able to catch anything and will instead spook the herd into flight. A cowboy trying to catch a horse out of the remuda has one throw in which to do it–no working the rope, no practice tosses. The horse catches were developed to make the most of the rope and the strength of the cowboy’s arm. Dick has mastered a number of these holds: he’ll shake out a coil or two, give me a wry wink and catch the straw-bale calf in one fluid movement. He’s not vain about his ability, just happy to pass on this knowledge, bringing this piece of western culture back to the east coast to teach a group of college students.

This class is really just a phys. ed. course on paper. But when the students are gathered around hanging on the words of a true cowboy, it’s easy to forget that little fact. Gym class, sure–but a little bit of living history as well. Cowboys aren’t defined by the way they dress or where they’re from–cowboy culture runs a little deeper than that, and I’m happy to give my students the opportunity to learn that on their own.

“Western IV” has also been known to dabble in a little planking.

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