Outside the Gate: The Cowboy Culture of Team Roping

Team roping (Photo by Bob Hills)

Bob Hills

At SaddleBrooke Ranch (SBR), it is easy to be captivated by all the community activities. However, there is an exciting world just “outside the gate.”

There are a large number of cattle and horse ranches in Arizona. This year, I have been exploring cowboy culture with my camera. In this article, I am highlighting the sport of team roping.

The concept of team roping was developed long ago on working ranches when it was necessary to capture and restrain a full-grown animal that was too large for one person to handle. It evolved into a sophisticated sport with rankings and handicap systems, much like the sports we know at SBR.

You may have witnessed team roping at the Tucson Rodeo, but there are many team-roping-only events held year-round in Arizona. The event features two people on horseback and a steer. The first roper is referred to as the header, roping the horns or head of the steer, then dallying the rope (offering slack to) around the horn of the saddle, and reining his horse to turn the steer. The second roper is the heeler, roping the steer by its hind legs. The event is timed, and penalties are assessed if the header or heeler leaves the starting gate too early or if the heeler ropes only one leg of the steer.

Team roping events are called jackpots. In a typical jackpot, each roper pays a $100 entry fee to pick or draw three other ropers to make teams. Ropers can enter more than once if they want more chances to win. What I find fascinating is that the ropers are both men and women with ages ranging between 10 and 70 (or more) years. As such, many team roping events become family affairs. The top two or three teams divide up two-thirds of the total entry fee with the remaining one-third going to the event organizer. At bigger events, the big winners earn saddles, buckles, or other horse tack denoting their accomplishment. Not surprisingly, the events are very social, as ropers are out to have fun as well as compete.

Arizona is considered the capital for team roping with Wickenburg at the epicenter. In the winter months, team roping events are held in the southern part of the state with the larger venues near SBR at the Marana Heritage Arena and Schulz Arena south of Tucson. During the summer, the roping events head to higher elevations like Show Low, Flagstaff, and other points north.

My goal in photographing these events is to capture the decisive moment in the sport—something that is accomplished by studying the sport, and with practice. I also hope to create artistic versions of my best photos depicting cowboy culture.

This fall, my plan is to show this collection at the SBR ARTwalk along with my desert landscapes, sunsets, and much more. You can also see a large collection of my work at www.bobhillsphoto.com.