They may only be “on the clock” for a few seconds each night at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, but timed-event cowboys are working well before they back in the box.
Plenty of work and preparation goes into every night’s competition before they nod their heads, from strategizing about their approaches on steers and calves and sharing information with competitors to studying film of previous nights. Most nights, they don’t just wing it and leave their fate to chance, instead employing a methodical approach to each run.
I’ve often seen cowboys huddled around computers in the Wrangler NFR press room or around televisions in the player lounge as they watch previous nights’ runs, looking for the slightest detail or edge that can help them shave time off their marks. It’s a fascinating process most people don’t realize goes on nightly inside the belly of the Thomas & Mack Center.
For steer wrestlers, preparing means watching some film, discussing each steer with their fellow bulldoggers and putting together a strategy for each lightning-fast round.
“If somebody has a steer I ran, I’ll tell them exactly what I felt, and vice-versa, to try and help them,” said 10-time Wrangler NFR qualifier Trevor Knowles, who is leading the world standings. “A guy will watch the run from the night before just to see if he can pick up on something. A guy likes to watch the steer go in slow motion one time and see if he can speed up what the previous guy did.
“If you have one of the steers that maybe aren’t one of the better ones, you’re better off running them second in the later rounds, because you’ve seen other guys go at them blind. You should be able to pick up on little things that help you throw them faster.”
But Knowles said the ultimate hope is to not have to worry too much about the steers in Las Vegas.
“Generally speaking, you’re hoping to draw good enough that you don’t need to watch any film to try to get an advantage,” he said. “You’re hoping to have steers that you don’t need to have a game plan for or anything different than the norm. Most of the steers there are supposed to be honest enough that hopefully you don’t have to pull out many tricks.”
Team ropers map out a plan of attack based on the steer they’ve drawn, talk to their partners about the best way to approach each run and try to discover tendencies about the animal they will soon rope.
“Cattle, they end up having patterns just like the horses and people or whatever,” said Hall of Famer and seven-time World Champion Jake Barnes. “The main thing is the speed and how they handle. They do have tendencies.”
That knowledge can be crucial to success.
“Knowing a steer is going to do something, there’s moves you can make to counter their moves,” said Barnes, who is fifth in this year’s heading standings. “You basically have an idea of the pattern the steer is going to run, and any time you have any information like that, it’s to your advantage. It’s almost like a boxer, football player or basketball player knowing what their opponent is going to do and the move they’re going to make.”
Barnes said that the first round of the Wrangler NFR is the first chance they have to rope the steers chosen for Las Vegas, so all previous preparation is key.
“They rope those steers through a couple days before the NFR, and everybody has someone there to film them,” said Barnes, who is looking to qualify for his first Wrangler NFR since 2011. “I think another things fans don’t know is that there are three sets of cattle. One set gets roped four times, and two of the other sets get roped three times.”
Sometimes, Barnes said, having too much knowledge can be a hindrance.
“It doesn’t always work, and a lot of times it’ll bite you in the tail,” he said. “I hear guys talking in the bull riding telecasts about setting up the bulls and trying to make a move before the bull makes it, but then the bull fakes them out and does something different. The same thing happens with steers.”
Reigning World Champion Tie-Down Roper Shane Hanchey prefers to have all the information he can, especially since calves can be unpredictable.
“I like to have the info and don’t like to wing it with something that pays that much,” said Hanchey, who is third in the 2014 world standings. “I like to watch what the calf did the round before, like everybody, and pick out some positives and negatives with each calf to try and pinpoint what I think the calf is going to do. They’re animals, they’re not robots or machines, and they change their courses and change their paths, just like any other animal.”
Hanchey said tie-down ropers routinely share information – not to mention horses and horse trailers – with one another, a strong sign of sportsmanship in the sport.
“Whoever ran that calf before, I’ll ask how the calf was, because they know how they felt and what they might do the next time,” he said. “We’re all buddies for the most part and want each other to win, and we’re competing against that calf and not so much against each other.”
Talking about the Wrangler NFR had Hanchey looking toward the future.
“It’s starting to get that time of year where you’re starting to look forward to December,” he said. “It’s coming up quickly, and you’ve got to finish the year off strong and get ready for the NFR.”