Team ropers in action at the 2013 Spanish Trail Classic. [Photo courtesy of Horse Tales Photography]

It seems like a strange comparison to make, but Walt Eddy sees many similarities between golf and “America’s Cowboy Sport” of team roping.

The main difference, of course, is that Tiger Woods and company are up against a tiny ball that weighs no more than 1.62 ounces, while team ropers must confront beefy animals that could tip the scales at 500 pounds.

If Eddy’s comparison piques anyone’s curiosity, they’re invited to attend the United States Team Roping Championships at the Old Spanish Trail Arena on Saturday May 2, and Sunday, May 3. The action at the Spanish Trail Classic is set to begin at 9 a.m. on both days.

The Spanish Trail Classic is expected to draw participants from across the Four Corners area; event producer Eddy himself is from Gallup, New Mexico.

“We should probably have 400 to 500 teams competing over the weekend,” he said.

Although the event is free to spectators and open to the public, Eddy repeatedly downplays expectations for those who are not familiar with team roping.

“We are not really a great spectator sport,” he said. “We are more of a participant sport.”

Anyone who thinks that it’s a stretch to point out similarities between golf and team roping should consider this: Fans of both sports have noted that golf and team roping involve carefully fine-tuned swings that could determine the outcome of a game.

Players from the two sports also face similar challenges that come with competitions on sometimes-unfamiliar courses with different sizes and shapes.

While golf places fewer physical demands on players, both golfers and team ropers must be mentally tough enough to make it through a game.

The sport of team roping is descended from a traditional ranching practice, where two cowboys would tie down a steer so that he could be branded or doctored.

It starts off with two ropers on horseback, who wait on the sidelines of a chute where a steer stands ready to charge off.

When the doors of the chute open and the steer runs out, the ropers pause to give the animal a head start, and then chase after him.

The first roper, or header, approaches the steer’s left side and tries to throw a loop around the animal’s horns or neck. If he succeeds, he wraps more rope around the saddle horn, and then leads his horse across the arena, dragging the steer behind him.

The second roper, or heeler, follows the steer from the rear and tosses a loop around the animal’s hind feet and saddle horn.

It’s a fast game. From beginning to end, the action is typically over in less than 15 seconds.

Most of the United States Team Roping Championships’ ropings are four-steer averages, or four-headers. In other words, a winning team must catch four steers back to back and make their combined runs faster than any other team in the competition. If a team misses just one steer, it’s out of the money. But if it ropes four steers faster than any other team, it wins a bunch of money or perhaps a trophy saddle or buckle.

Old Spanish Trail Arena Manager Steve Swift has watched many a team roping event, and he said he admires the combination of sheer talent, dedication and accuracy that the cowboys bring to the venue.

“They’re so accurate with what is basically a lasso going after a moving target,” Swift said. “Especially the heeler, (who is) trying to capture the two hind legs of the steer. It’s just an amazing talent.”

The United States Team Roping Championships group, which is based in Stephensville, Texas, represents more than 35,000 members worldwide; the for-profit organization currently offers more than 85 sanctioned events and 300 affiliate events nationwide.

The Spanish Trail Classic is one of many events scheduled ahead of the national finals in Oklahoma City this October. USTRC’s seven regional finals and its National Finals of Team Roping are highlights of the roping season, offering more than $6 million altogether in prize money and over $1 million in prizes to its member ropers.

Some ropers come to the sport from ranching backgrounds, although Eddy said that many others show up for fun.

“It’s more of a recreational sport,” Eddy said. “Some people have rural backgrounds, but it’s not by any means just old rural people doing this.”

The average team roper is somewhere between the ages of 40 and 55, although the sport draws players of all ages, from kids to people who are well up into their 70s. Many families compete together.

“It’s not uncommon to see four generations of the same family,” Eddy said.

Like golf, team roping rules are based on a handicap system, so teams compete against ropers from the same age groups.

“That way, a 70-year-old isn’t competing with a 25-year-old at the height of his abilities,” he said.

Children 12 and under who aren’t quite ready to compete can practice roping a stationary dummy. Others are welcome to catch a glimpse of a traditional Western pastime that is still going strong.

“If you want to see cowboys, it’s a good way to see them up close and personal,” he said.

Team roping championships return to arena

“If you want to see cowboys, it’s a good way to see them up close and personal.” — Walt Eddy

When: Saturday May 2 through Sunday, May 3; action starts at 9 a.m. on both days

Where: Old Spanish Trail Arena, 3641 S. U.S. Highway 191

Cost: Free admission for spectators

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