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A small glimpse into the past
Those who attended the Martha Miles Memorial Roping event the end of May got a special look into the past: A Single Rider Roping contest. The contest was held both Saturday and Sunday afternoons - on Saturday before the roping event, and on Sunday after.
When cowboys first started watching cattle on wide-open range, they spent a lot of their time by themselves as they looked after the herd. This meant they had to be able to take down a steer and tend to whatever needed tending alone. This method of taking the steer down and under control is called single rider roping now, but in the past it was referred to as steer tripping, steer tossing or steer busting, meaning busting the animal’s spirit as you made it follow your will. If the cowboy saw a steer that was sick, hurt or was just missed at branding, he roped, tripped and tied the steer so he was left lying sill on the ground and easier to work on. After the cowboy was finished, a quick untie, and both rider and steer were free to continue on their way.
Because this was done alone with no witnesses, it was also popular with rustlers. If they saw a steer without a good brand on it or one they could alter to their own, they could rope, trip and tie him all by themselves. Once the steer was down, they built a fire, heated a large ring from their saddle, then used a couple of branches to make a makeshift running iron. They put their brand on the animal, and then it was free money come roundup time when the animal was sold.
Because everything needs to be done correctly in the process, it showed off a cowboy’s skill level the best. That is why Single Rider Roping was one of the first rodeo events. By using a stop watch, you could easily compare one cowboy against another. At these early rodeos, the steers used were large animals brought into town to be sold anyway, instead of special rodeo stock. This made the cowboy’s work harder and was more dangerous for the steers. Because they were on their way to the meat plant, they were larger, heavier animals, and the tripping process could injure them. The stock owners didn’t care if an animal was injured and had to be put down because they were on their way to be put down and be butchered anyway. These were the factors that led Single Rider Roping to get a bad reputation, so it was slowly replaced at rodeos by team roping, the same event essentially, but with two riders, a header and heeler, doing the work of the one roper.
Another big factor in Single Rider Roping fading out of popularity was the fact that rodeo was growing in popularity. This means stock has to be available yearround, not just at fall roundups. This created stock owners who, instead of selling their stock, loaded them up in trailers to take them to the next rodeo in the next town. The owners still had larger, heavier, older animals, but they were more concerned that the animal avoid injury so it could be used in the next rodeo. As rodeos have continued to grow in popularity, stock owners have learned that younger, lighter, healthier animals were better able to perform and travel throughout their useful rodeo life.
With the stock being so much healthier, a group of ropers with a sense of history is trying to bring back single rider roping. They have started by forming small groups that travel from event to event, holding a small Single Rider Roping as an exhibition part of a larger event. These small events are giving people across the state a chance to have the same look into the past as these single riders have.