The steers were as rough as advertised. Some were fast and outran any header who got a late start.
“Where is that Carter?” said one of the men in the roping arena behind Jeff Moore's ranchhouse in Brawley. Tuesday was a regular practice night for Carter Taylor, Moore, and other team ropers. This week in particular, in early November, they were getting ready for the Cattle Call, the Imperial Valley's annual rodeo.
In a rodeo they'd wrap their ropes around their saddlehorns to stop the steer cold, but Moore seldom allows it during practice.
“Late," said another.
"Probably working," a third one said.
"Yeah, he's working and’ll be along later," said Moore. "Hey, somebody open the gate down there for them steers.'"
Jeff Moore: "Well, I'm sorry, partner. He got a step on me. I heard that steer ran out an 18.2 on a team last night, and I should have been ready for him."
"Got it,” a woman's voice came back from the far end of the arena, a hundred yards away under the lights, one could make out the forms of young cattle waiting m front of the stripping chute to have the ropes taken off their heads and heels.
Carter Taylor: "I've always had a real good motion. Smooth. No problems. Then all of a sudden I couldn't even throw the rope I'd be missing everything. Then I couldn't ride. My horse didn't know what I was doing."
That done, the steers were chivvied back the starting gate where two ropers, a header and a heeler, would give each one a lead of 12 feet or so, then run it down and rope it front and back.
In a rodeo they'd wrap their ropes around their saddlehorns to stop the steer cold, but Moore seldom allows it during practice.
For all of this roping the steer lasts ten seconds — five and a halt seconds if the team is to be guaranteed some prize money.
It's hard on the cattle. They are Mexican corrientes, valued for their strong horns. Moore troubles himself every few years to bring in a fresh bunch from a quarantine point in New Mexico A livestock broker, he sells the corrientes, for beef when they reach 500 pounds and in the meantime doesn't want them abused.
You're so beat up inside that after a while, you can't even open the door without getting your foot in the way.
During the workout, the ropers hardly talked among themselves. Two phone calls reached the arena at its outdoor box. Moore's wife and business manager, Joanie, trotted over to answer them. One of the ropers threw an empty cigarette pack on the dirt I front of Moore, who picked it up and handed it back with a low, “Don’t do that. "
Since the family business is seasonal, from May to October, he will concentrate on the winter rodeos. If all goes well, he will pick up some wins early in the year and use the bankroll to travel to more distant competitions.
Moore can be frinicky and has had high words with a few of the ropers who’ve used his arena over the years; but he is generous, too and genuinely liked for his patronage. Every Cattle Call, the Moore home is open to half a dozen ropers from out of town. He has friends over to the arena nearly every night, has sponsored competitions, and once had a former national champion down to give a roping class
Moore 52, is also the off-and-on teammate and steady supporter of young Carter Taylor, the local amateur whose goal is to win enough money to qualify for the national finals rodeo and have a shot at the championship. Moore and Taylor are entered to compete at the Cattle Call together as a team.
“That Carter Taylor's probably about the best heeler in the valley," said John Goad, standing by the phone box at the arena He had taken a break from practice to rest his back and have a smoke Goad is 64, a retired ranch foreman whose voice seems to emanate from behind his clenched jaw. "Yeah, he damn sure knows how to heel," said Goad. " ‘Course that don't say how he's going to do outside. You got some punks out there that'll outrope damn…”
Goad finished the remark with something I didn't catch.
"They're not cowboys anymore they're athletes,” he went on. "Punk bastards'll rope a steer in four, five seconds. They got timing reflexes and all like top-condtioned athletes you'll see anywhere. But understand, that's all they do is rodeo. You tike Carter and some of the guys around here, hell, they all got jobs. They'd starve before they beat most of these professionals."
During this speech, Goad had taken a cigarette from his shat pocket, put it to his mouth, reached back to the same pocket for the lighter, lit the cigarette, replaced the lighter and taken the cigarette away without interrupting a syllable. He stopped now to watch Moore and another roper gallop after a steer. Back on the subject of athletes, he said some of the top money winners in rodeo are pretty much removed from ranch work. He recalled a friend who was a respectable saddle-bronc rider but who absolutely fell off a roping horse because he'd never mastered the basics of riding a tame animal.
Bull riding bareback riding and steer wrestling never had a place on the cattle ranch, whereas team roping is still the most practical way to bring down a steer for doctoring, and almost any ranch hand is familiar with it. That and the fact that roping is relatively safe explain why team ropers far outnumber bull riders. Ropers make less money, which is only right, but also have longer careers. The event attracts real cowboys who have grown up chasing cattle, as well as amateurs and pure athletes who compete for fun or profit.
As foretold, Taylor showed up at the end of the workout. He is of medium height and build, has longish curly hair, and is wearing his usual un-cowboy-like clothes, an old green baseball cap, round-toed boots, and a nonfiligreed belt buckle of ordinary size. At 29, he a married and is working his way into the family business of installing drainage pipes under farmland Behind roping, his preferred sport a tennis .
Moore, Goad, and the others joined him at the side of the arena m the shadow of a pecan tree "Been pretty busy?" Moore asked.
"Finishing up,” said Taylor. The last of the irrigation lines are dug before the farmers sow their winter vegetables. "I got some stuff to do tomorrow, then I'll be all clear."
Moore told him that the following night they'd be taking some steers down to the Cattle Call arena to get ready for the special rodeo on Thursday morning for handicapped children "We start at ten o'clock on Thursday," Moore said.
"Ten, ten-thirty,” Moore repeated. "Might want to be there an hour before."
Taylor nodded to say he'd gotten the message - Don't be late -then they fell into talking about friends who were competing at a rodeo up m San Francisco. They were Bobby Hurley and Dennis Gatz, Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper, Dennis Watkins and David Motes — all among the current top money winners in competitions sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Hurley and Gatz had won $61,000 each; Barnes and Cooper $56,000; and Watkins and Motes $36,000. Each was thus on track to qualify for the national finals m December, a competition open only to the top 15 performers m team roping and each of the other rodeo events.
The national finals are the real payoff - some $2 2 miiion in prize money this year. A roping team can double its winnings for the entire year at one last rodeo. The team with the most winnings at the end is named world champion.
Meanwhile, the top teams travel around, competing with any and all comers. From the amateur’s point of view, that's the beauty of professional rodeo Any part-timers can test themselves against the best Most of the teams that Taylor and the others were talking about were expected dawn for the Cattle Call.
When their mounts had cooled down, Jeff Moore and the others called it a night and walked the horses out of the arena Taylor said good-bye and left later in ha commodious ranchhouse. Moore ruminated on what it takes to be a top roper these days and on Taylor’s chances of making it.
"He can rope," said Moore, glancing at me with very blue eyes and a poker face. "He's never had the financial backing. It takes money to travel, stay out on the road And now he’s working for his dad, and that takes time.”
I asked him why he hadn't tried to become a professional roper himself.
Moore smiled at Joanie it who was across from us m her new kitchen, stir-frying some chicken for supper. “I require a higher financial reward," he said, which got a laugh from her. "I quit roping altogether for ten years when I was getting the business going," he said. "You can't do both."
In a while, the subject turned to how Taylor and Moore got along as a team. "If either one of us misses, the other one won't say anything," he said, "We don't get down on each other. We each just try to do our best, but if that don't happen then…" He put his hands up in surrender "The thing about roping," he went on, “is that anybody can get hot. You get four, five steers in a row that you can handle. You start winning, get your confidence up, get a leg up on everybody. Of course the best ropers are going to win by the end of the year. But you can be among the best If you're patient and lucky, your breaks will come; you gotta be ready”
Taylor feels he's been getting ready since he was 14, when he picked up a rope at a horse-riding lesson. For a roper, 14 is late to be learning to ride a horse, but Taylor never had the babe-the-saddle training of someone born on a cattle ranch. The valley has few ranches to be born onto. With the population boom that Wowed World War II, beef production in the Southwest was largely taken out of pasture and concentrated on the feedlot, where more cattle could be handed and more pounds added with less labor. Some cattle are still shipped to the Imperial Valley to pasture on sugar beets m the winter and alfalfa in the summer, thus, a handful of jobs remain for the herding of loose stock. But all of the other cattle are penned Ranch-style horsemanship remains an important part of valley culture but that's all it is — culture.
Taylor's mother had taken him for his riding lesson one day when he was poking around the back of his instructor's truck and found a rope. He started playing with it. and for some inexplicable reason, life changed He started practicing all the time, roping whatever was handy. When he didn't have a rope in hand, he would practice in his head. "It got so that's all I would think about was roping, roping,” he said, “I’d be driving down the highway and I'd look out on the road, and I could see ..."
He could see steer in front of him bolting out of the chute, kicking up clods of dirt and making a sharp turn to the left as his partner roped its horns. He could see the head of his horse following the steer, pointing on its hip, feel himself whirling the noose above his head and flinging it roundhouse down at the crook n the steer's right hind leg. The noose lay like a big trap on the ground for a half-second before the steer stepped into it as he pulled his horse up and drew tight on the nylon rope winching it on his saddlehorn, wrapped in rubber to better grip the nylon, and drawing the steer's hmd feet neatly together like a roast on a spit. "Then I'd look out and see the road again," he said.
When he was 22, Taylor spent four months in Saudi Arabia making $35,000 a month teaching an assistant to cut irrigation trenches. And while his pupil worked the trenching machine, Taylor lay in the truck, alternating long periods of reading with smooth and vivid daydreams of roping cattle. “I came back and must have roped 30 steers without missing," he said.
In the meantime growing up he'd had some other interests. He was on the tennis team in high school, played a little baseball, raced a dirt bike. For a time, he thought he wanted to become a working cowboy, before he saw how hard he'd have to work and for how little: and becoming a trucker had intrigued him too But he always came back to wanting to earn his living with a rope.
The turning point came when he won a few dollars at a roping in Needles and was entered the next day in a dirt-bike race in Riverside. To make the start, he would have to drive half the night back to Brawley, unload his horse, load up the bike and drive another four hours to the track. He decided that night that if he were gong to drive anywhere, it would be home, to bed, or to another roping.
It was clear by then that if he wanted to get ahead in rodeo he'd have to make the commitment to travel. He'd been told as much in a roping class he'd taken in Brawley "Get out of the valley,” said Taylor, summarizing the instruction.
In rodeo as in most endeavors, the successful are blessed with the ability to slog. A local rodeo champion, Ron Crawford of Lakeside, often says of himself; "Even if I had the talent to be one of the best team ropers m the world, I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have stood all the driving."
The full-time roper's work week begins on Tuesday night with preparations to leave early the following morning. He loads his gear m the pickup and horse-trailer and makes a few last calls to the computer at the RRCA in Colorado, confirming when and where he’ll compete. A rodeo heat is called a go-round, and at a major rodeo, the roper might compete in two-go rounds as far apart as Thursday and Sunday. Meanwhile, to make expense money for himself and the horse, he'll drive day and night to other rodeos or to non-sanctioned “jackpot" competitions, stopping only to eat, gas up, and call the computer. "I've seen many times where a roper will drive all night to San Diego from Fresno, miss his steer, turn around, and drive right back," said Crawford.
For all of this roping the steer lasts ten seconds — five and a halt seconds if the team is to be guaranteed some prize money. If either member of the team misses roping the steer, they of course win nothing. Jackpots pay from $50 to $1200 per team, cow-town rodeos pay an average $500; regional rodeos $2500. Team ropers usually travel together to save expenses, and yet they can end up spending $1000 a week, Crawford said. By Sunday night, all the competitions are over and the roper heads back to have Monday, his day of rest, at home.
In his best year so far, Taylor won about $20,000, not enough to live on, just enough to give him ideas about going at it full-time. It was gratifying to establish a small reputation but frustrating too, for the better known he became, the more difficult it was to make money in his bread-and-butter competition, the jackpot. Unlike a rodeo sanctioned by the PRCA, which is open to any competitor holding a PRCA card, available for $210, a jackpot is frequently limited to ropers who haven't won much. In the spirit of giving the locals a chance, a jackpot promoter typically will exclude ropers who have won more than $5000 in the previous year.
Eventually, Taylor found himself in a bind. He hadn't banked enough money to finance a long-term campaign that would take him to all the big rodeos in Colorado, Texas, Utah, and New Mexico, where, with the same skill he'd displayed at local jackpots, he might be able to win two or three times as much money. But he was too successful to compete anymore at the nearby jackpots, where his bankroll could take him. "I was winning lots of ropings, but I couldn't get a start. It's like I was just good enough to starve"
Finally, he had a plan to change that, quickly. He got a partner and booked themselves into the finals of the International Pro Rodeo Association competition in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The IPRA finals is an open event, available to all who can pay their travel and entry fees. It would be like competing in the PRCA's national finals, with big purses and publicity; and with any luck, Taylor could break through to a high showing or even a championship and perhaps then to the grubstake and confidence he would need to reach his goal. For this he risked the plane fare back to Tulsa. In a way, it was the big time. He was headed for a rodeo that was too far to reach by truck and trailer He would leave his horse in Brawley and fly to the finals, just like a top money-winner He left in high spirits, having never flown to a rodeo before
But in the end it was a bust. In two go-rounds, his partner missed the horns and Taylor missed the heels. They didn’t even get a time, much less any money.
Worse, Taylor had glimpsed how many good ropers are out there, a bare few even beginning to make a living. He'd also come up hard against one of his own limitations, his horsemanship. He'd been unable to handle the horse he'd borrowed. Horsemanship isn't something you can improve on quickly, as you can a hitch in your throwing motion. Taylor had to face the fact that if he were going to rope for a living, there would be no shortcuts. He'd have to go back where he'd left off and work himself out of the bind by winning consistently on the regional circuit.
As the months went by, he won some and lost some and slowly slid into a funk. The insidious thing about sports is that when you've lost the best in yourself and are trying to grasp it again, you soon end up taking a pissed off swipe at every beer you've ever drunk, at the stupid, the decent and the innocent habits you have collected around yourself for amusement and protection. You're so beat up inside that after a while, you can't even open the door without getting your foot in the way.
"I just got really screwed up,” said Taylor, talking about his mechanics. "I've always had a real good motion. Smooth. No problems. Then all of a sudden I couldn't even throw the rope. I'd be missing everything. Then I couldn't ride. My horse didn't know what I was doing. And finally I just lost all my confidence. I was..."
He shook his head. He was standing at that moment in the Cattle Call arena, where Jeff Moore, and Joanie, and a dozen other men and women were getting ready for the Exceptional Rodeo the next morning for some 400 handicapped children from all over the Imperial Valley. Cold night air had settled here at the arena, by the New River bottom, but Taylor was warm from his workout and stood hatless and comfortable next to his horse.
"I was just a mess," he said through a grin.
I asked him what he'd done about it.
"Nothing, really, just sort of kept working I worked out at Jeff's pretty regular. And then,” he said, remembering, "Bobby Hurley came out to stay with Jeff, and for a week there we worked out every night. That's what did it. Hurley's so smooth and consistent. We call it velvet. He'd velvet that rope down over the steer and turn him so easy. See, look ..."
Taylor held up his hands, the right with a white cotton roping glove on it, and aligned them one to chase the other, the left hand the horse and the white hand the steer.
"Hurley could handle each steer the same way. Slow, fast, go right, go left, didn't matter He'd follow on him just like this, turn him and give me the same shot every time Same shot — turn, bang — I'd rope him. One night there we must have run through 20 steers, didn't miss a one."
Taylor added that they were roping them in competitive times too, though no one had a stopwatch. I asked if he mentally ticked off the seconds during a run. He thought about that “Nah, not really, you're concentrating so hard on the steer. But you do know the time by the way the steer goes If he goes like this — " he wagged his hand like a fishtail — "you've come on him too hard or too fast, and you've lost time four amateur's always in a hurry. Your professionals are smooth, 'cause they know smooth is fast.
"And that's how we were," Taylor went on, getting back to him and Hurley and brightening up. "After that week I felt we could rope with anybody Bring 'em on! I know — I really know — that I can rope I haven't lost my goals. Maybe I have lost some of my determination. I'm tied down to a lot of things right now. But I have no doubt that I have the ability to compete.”
He then laid out his current plan. Since the family business is seasonal, from May to October, he will concentrate on the winter rodeos. If all goes well, he will pick up some wins early in the year and use the bankroll to travel to more distant competitions. One of these winters, he might make enough to leave the business for a summer and go to rodeos all year round. That's the year he means to place in the top 15 and go to the finals Taylor says his dad and wife are behind him, and he knows a young header in Colorado who might be the ideal partner. They met in March at a jackpot in Arizona, won some money, and went their separate ways "We roped together real good, communicated good," said Taylor, "I've been meaning to call him up."
I asked why he hadn't.
"Well, he lives back in Colorado," Taylor said, "That's kind of far to get together."
But if Taylor wins enough to afford to travel, would he call him then?
"Yeah, well, there you go,” Taylor said, "Truth is. I'm probably just scared."
This year's winter season began with a rodeo November 10 in Denver, followed the next day by the Cattle Call. Not long before midmorning on November 12, when Taylor and Moore were scheduled to compete, the arena had a lazy, hushed feel about it. It was the Sunday slack time before the full-blown rodeo events of the afternoon, when the stands would be full of ticket-holders come to see the action of the clowns and the roughstock events, to listen again to the announcer's jokes and hear the cowboy band segue deftly from "Cotton-Eyed Joe" to a commercial for Copenhagen/Skoal tobacco. Now the arena was quiet and empty except for the tractor pulling a leveler around on the watered dirt. Without a ticket or even a contestant's pass, you could have the run of the place, walk up to the stock pens or check out the standings posted next to the rodeo director's trailer.
For the team ropers who had not yet competed, first place was there for the taking. The times of the previous two go-rounds, which had taken place on Saturday afternoon and evening, were abysmal. The best time was 9.5 seconds. You could hear some of the athletes grumbling about the steers all veering to the left and crowding the arena wall before you could rope them, but run-down stock is something that good ropers see a lot of, and this morning's go-round included some of the best teams: Barnes and Cooper, Motes and Watkins among them.
"That leading time ain’t gonna last two minutes,” said Crawford, the lakeside champ, who had come out just to see friends and take some pictures. A rodeo official emerged from the trailer to post the number of the steer each team had drawn.
Not ten minutes later, Barnes, a header, was there on his horse to look at the steer he'd be chasing in half an hour, number 19. It was the second time he'd been there that morning, as Crawford had seen him earlier looking them ewer before the draw.
There must have been 30 other steers just like number 19 in a pen so small it looked like a bovine Hydra, with 20 heads raised up and twisting for space to rest their chins.
I asked Barnes if he'd seen number 19 before. He shook his head.
I asked what he was looking for in that steer.
“Aw, you just look for what they're generally like, like, see that number 8 there, next to 27? Eight's kinda small and doggy, don't look too strong, probably not too quick." Smiling, Barnes wheeled and ambled his horse away without mentioning whatever it was he'd seen in number 19.
Moore was hanging around the cattle chute that leads into the arena. He and Taylor had drawn number 2, and Moore was trying a different tack in finding out about it. He sidled up to one of the stock contractor's people, a kid about 19 who had probably traveled the circuit with the same bunch of steers.
"What do you know about 2?" said Moore. "Not much," the kid said.
"You haven't seen him run then, have you?”
"I start looking up to see 'em run, and Mr. Rosser'II tell me to buy a ticket," he said. Cotton Rosser is the stock contractor Moore continued asking around and learned that number 2 the previous evening had led a roping team to post a miserable time of 18.2 seconds It was not good news. It meant the steer was irregular in some way, very slow or very fast or liable to duck from under the rope. At the Exceptional Rodeo a few days before Taylor and teammate Jim Shipman of San Diego had won the roping competition; and that night, Taylor had a satisfying workout at Moore's arena, roping all but one steer in 15 runs. It had been a serious tune-up, and he'd done well.
Now Taylor was out in the rodeo arena warming up, wearing a cowboy hat for once. About 15 ropers were out there with him.
Still wet, the dirt glistened where the sun fell on it and darkened to mud in the shadows. You could hear the whirring of the stiff nylon ropes as the men whirled them above their heads. A crop duster, pumpkin-colored, banked over the white nm of the bleachers.
At 9:30 the go-round began. As Crawford predicted, the previous best time was beaten by the first team to go at it. Then the new best time was beaten by the third team. Motes and Watkins, who put up 6.8 seconds.
The steers were as rough as advertised. Some were fast and outran any header who got a late start; others took off angling left toward the arena wall about 40 yards away, so that the header had to beat it to the turn, then rope it, and give his heeler a shot before it stopped against the wall and stood dead as a sawhorse. On Saturday afternoon, two teams in the go-round had come up with no-times, and in the evening, out of nine teams, no-times were posted by five.
Here Sunday, number 19 got the best of Barnes and Cooper. Barnes seemed to have gotten a decent start, put rope on the steer, and turned it, but then it skipped sideways and out of Cooper's rope By the time Taylor and Moore came up, the ninth team to run. Motes and Watkins's time was still the one to beat.
Taylor started to back his horse into the box, then had to wait while the handlers cleared the chute of a steer that had been loaded out of order. Number 2 was loaded up, the lead handler holding its head so the horns would clear the gate Moore and Taylor settled in.
Number 2 got out fast and took a long lead on Moore, who made a late start. It had started toward the wall when Moore, his hat flying, finally cut it off and turned it down the arena. Maybe ten seconds went by before Moore could get off his shot. Caught, the steer swerved to face Moore while Taylor let fly at the heels coming around. The rope grabbed only one. The time was 15 seconds and 5 seconds added for one-legging. They turned around and left the arena slowly, with the hangdown look of people who feel they're being watched, where actually, they attracted hardly any notice since they had finished well out of the money.
"Tell you what," a disgusted Moore could be heard saying as he rode out. "It wasn't Carter's fault. I got out of there late I was off the line by about a foot." No one disagreed with him.
Taylor, back at the chute smiled and said it didn't matter. Moore said, "Well, I'm sorry, partner. He got a step on me. I heard that steer ran out an 18.2 on a team last night, and I should have been ready for him."
"It don't matter," Taylor said, “I one-legged him anyway.”
They exchanged a few more words about the run, happy that they hadn't given up on the steer when they'd known after the start they wouldn't beat the best time.
Back at his trailer, while Taylor was unsaddling his horse, a fan walked up and reminded him that technically, he'd done better than Barnes and Cooper.
"Yeah," said Taylor, his voice flat with disappointment, "And the pay's the same."
"Tell you what." said Moore a few feet away "We're going back to the house and have a workout for some of the fellas who'll be roping later on this afternoon. You about ready to go?"
Taylor was still handling tack at his trailer but turned around and said firmly, "I'm ready now."