The sun careens off the black mountains above us, tires of the bigness of the Wyoming sky, and pools in the dirt of the riding arena at my horse’s feet. My horse is named Vern. His feet, along with the rest of him, are 26 years old. That is old for a horse, and he is showing it, knowing and wise to what I’m trying to do, but also not lending an ounce more effort than he thinks he needs to. I am happy with his effort. If he were to feel spry all of a sudden, I would probably land on my ass in the dirt.
Vern was Gary’s dad’s horse, until Gary’s dad passed away two months ago at 92. If he hadn’t, he’d be here practicing team roping with us, Gary says. Gary has owned this ranch in the foothills of the Blacktooth Mountains for 20 years, and he wields his ownership with a fearsome pride shared by farmers of all sorts. What Gary says, goes. I can practically see his dad’s ghost standing over in the corral, willed back alive for the moment by his son, shaking his head at the dumb kid who’s stolen his horse.
The first rider ensnares the steer with a lariat around the base of the horns, then maneuvers the animal so that the second rider can catch its back legs. The end result is a steer fully immobilized, strung out in a tug-of-war between its two captors.
Team roping is theoretically a simple sport, born of the necessity of catching sick or stray steers. Two riders, both with lariats swinging, chase down the steer, which wears a funny-looking head wrap for safety and knows it’d rather be getting somewhere else, fast. The first rider ensnares the steer with a lariat around the base of the horns, then wraps the lariat’s end around the horn of the saddle and maneuvers the animal so that the second rider can catch its back legs. The end result is a steer fully immobilized, strung out in a tug-of-war between its two captors. After a moment it is released to trot away, amply miffed but none the worse for wear.
The lasso is the shape of the rope — the rope itself is a lariat (though cowboys call it simply a “rope”). At King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyoming, ropes are woven by a homemade machine in the basement and sold to both everyday cattlemen and champion rodeo ropers. Traditionally, cowboys made their ropes out of dried animal hide; today, they’re made of stiff nylon or polymer, dried to retain their shape, then coated in wax for durability and reduced friction. Ropes can be custom made with different numbers of strands and material for extra stiffness or give, based on the role they’re intended for on the ranch or in the rodeo.
Gary stands with a white-haired man by the chute, watching the team roping practice in silence. Inside the chute, a calf can’t decide between standing stark still or thrashing against the aluminum posts that contain it. The metal structure juts like a jetty into the arena, with a double gate that can be opened by a pull from a handle the white-haired man holds. The white-haired man’s daughter sits atop her tall white horse on the left side of the calf-filled chute, lariat in her right hand, coil in her left. “Come on over, Chris,” says Gary, pointing to the chute’s far side. “Pace this steer for her — just stay right on its rear flank and keep it goin’ straight.” Vern takes his time across the arena, and I back him into the slot.
Rodeo is the official sport of Wyoming. People here learn it at home, on their farm, or their extended family’s farms. Their high schools all have teams, which compete in the sport’s most common categories: bull riding, saddle bronc, bareback, barrel racing, calf roping, breakaway roping, team roping, steer wrestling. Ask the professionals where they started and they’ll tell you they fell into it when they were 10 or 12 or, if they’re late bloomers, 15. The non-pros all were either pros at one time, or were no good; the saying goes that they donated their competition fees to keep local rodeos afloat. Most towns of any size (and here, it doesn’t take much to be relatively big) have a stadium that hosts a rodeo at least once a week. Cody, at the entrance to Yellowstone and thick with tourists like flies on horse shit, has a rodeo that runs all summer, every night.
Rodeo is the official sport of Wyoming. People here learn it at home, on their farm, or their extended family’s farms. Ask the professionals when they started and they’ll tell you they fell into it when they were 10 or 12 or, if they’re late bloomers, 15.
Gary has run his Tuesday roping practices for years. He owns 100 head of cattle, an expensive endeavor, since each head costs him $500 a year to raise. He also has this outdoor arena he built in the hollow of his scenic, hilly plot of land. So he did the only logical thing to do with those two resources, for a Wyomingite: he started holding open practices for roping, something that, as the core of both rodeo competition and ranching utility, most Wyomingites believe everyone should learn proficiency in. Anyone can show up to Gary’s practices; at least a handful do every week. This week three have shown up besides us: the white-haired man’s daughter, 15 years old and two years into team roping for her high school team; plus two men visiting from Texas who seem to be related, one bigger, friendlier and not great, the other silent, tough-lanky, with an indecipherable twang, and a sniper-like accuracy with his rope.
In competition, the fastest team ropers string out their calf in less than eight seconds. They make it look easy. Here in Gary’s ring, the young steers have shown us what perilous escape looks like. Only the brusque, slim cowboy has hit his mark consistently. I’ve sat on Vern, tooling around, occasionally corralling an escaped steer into the exit chute, bashfully kicking Vern’s sides to caress him into a trot after our prey.
But now atop Vern, next to the steer in its chute, my blood starts pumping. The steer is tense like a cornered cat. The white-haired man’s daughter is too, taut and ready on her horse, which whinnies and shies. I’m skittish in the saddle. Vern is solid as a rock beneath me, and I know I’ll have to kick him hard to get his old soul into motion. The evening air is sweet with horse sweat and manure. The only sounds are dirt-muted hooves and the rattle of the calf against its metal confines.
The white-haired man pulls his lever. The calf zips in the corner of my eye. I’m caught by the back lip of the saddle as Vern accelerates like a supercar off the line, cracking my tailbone and sending my arms and the reins in them askew. Vern rears back, bothered in his wicked fast chase, and I catch my balance, lean forward, and let him gallop into the whistling wind, closing on the flying hooves of the steer. The girl looses her lariat and I let go of a whoop that disappears into the foothills.