Forty horses were unloaded from a double-decker livestock hauler on Nov. 23 at the Box Elder County Fairgrounds. They were young – only about a year old – and were brought to be used during Saturday evening’s sport.
These horses were not for riding, but for roping.
One by one, a foal was chased from a chute at the north end of the indoor arena by a man with a whip. Teams of two ropers on horseback pursued the loose horse until one threw a loop around the horse’s neck. The foal buckled down on the choke and hopped a few steps forward. The other team member roped the horse’s front legs and it stumbled to the ground with a thud. It laid there for a moment, caught its breath and regained its senses. The colt was then dragged out of the arena by its neck.
Horse roping, also called horse tripping, is a rodeo event banned in California, Florida, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
But it is legal in
and many who attended the event believe it should stay that way.
“This is the Vaquero way,” said Boyd Udy, a volunteer who herded the roped horses into the chutes where their necks and legs were freed from the loops. “This is how the ranchers doctor their horses.”
Vaquero is a centuries-old tradition of horse training and livestock handling of Spanish origins. Some consider the tradition to be rougher than more modern practices. There is a considerable diversity of belief, however, of what the tradition entails.
For competitor Sonny Munns, the attraction to horse roping is simple.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a hobby.”
Before the event began, Shawn Judkins, who owns the yearlings, gathered the ropers to discuss the rules. He said that he had not anticipated the 162 teams that showed up to rope two horses each, but that they would still rope the 40 horses that he brought. He outlined a few rules and told the competitors that they would be disqualified for handling the stock in a rough manner. By the mid-point of the event, many of the foals were missing hair around their neck and had rope burns across their bodies. One colt had a gash on his forehead. Another limped.
“I’m sure they had rules,” said Jason Romney, a ranch horse trainer from
after viewing videos of the horse roping. “Whether those rules were enforced or
not, I do not know.” Logan, Utah
Romney isn’t against roping horses – he does it himself as part of his training program – but always in a small round corral to allow the horse to have a break from the rope’s pressure.
“Horse roping, done in the correct manner, is one of the safest ways to handle wild horses,” Romney said. “I’ve seen it done in many manners, but the problem with roping horses by the neck is that it easily cuts off the horse’s air because their trachea is exposed.”
Cattle roping events are popular among rodeo events, but “horses are built differently than cattle,” Romney said. “Even the horses’ hair and skin is thinner.”
Veterinarian Diana Wittkopf agrees.
“Horses have a longer more flexible neck and their legs are easier to break than cattle,” said Diana Wittkopf, who practices in
. “I’ve seen horses that flipped over –
not neccesarily on a hard surface – get severely injured.” Logan,
Wittkopf said horses that fall down hard can fracture skulls or necks and can damage their back muscles.
“Many horses with injuries like that are never useful as a saddle horse,” Wittkopf said.
Wittkopf said that horses often get hurt in various sports. Even racehorses or show horses can get hurt.
“However, many horse sports have a veterinarian on the ground,” Wittkopf said, “and hiring a veterinarian would add to the expense of the event.”
During the horse’s break outside in between being roped, they appeared to have no water or food.
“Feeding a horse during an event like that can cause problems with their digestive health like colic, but the horses should have had water,” Romney said.
Jim Keyes, a ranch roper and clinician who watched the footage of the event, said that the proper way to catch a horse is to gently rope it around the neck and then rope the front feet. Keyes ropes colts on ranches every July to brand and vaccinate them. Keyes said that Judkins should have limited the number of teams running because each horse should not have been roped more than two times each. With the number of teams that attended Tremonton’s roping, each horse was roped about eight times. Keyes said that what he saw in the footage was not significantly alarming.
“I didn’t really see anything that I thought was out of the ordinary or harming to the animals for this type of event,” Keyes said. “The main thing I saw was the lack of roping talent, but that is not uncommon.”
“The rope is just a tool for a buckaroo,” Keyes said, “but the goal is to handle the horses with the least amount of stress – both the horse being roped and the animal being ridden.”
Equine expert Colette Tebeau said young horses should not be handled in ways that could damage their developing skeletal system.
While acknowledging that she grew up riding English and does not have the experience in western rodeo events, Tebeau said she found the footage to be disconcerting.
“I respect the tradition of roping horses,” Tebeau said, “but it should still be done in a humane way.”
“As trainers, we do not even tie our young horses in order to prevent the risk of injuring their neck,” Tebeau said. “Someone should be there monitoring the injuries to the animals.”
Tebeau also worried that the horses may have suffered “mental trauma.”
“It will be difficult or impossible to train these horses to be riding horses because they see humans as predators,” she said.
“I believe what we are doing is completely humane,” Judkins said.
He plans on holding another horse roping event at the Box Elder County Fairgrounds in January.
Robyn Van Valkenburg has been around horses her entire life. She grew up riding in 4-H and junior rodeos and now rides with the Dirty Dozen adult riding team and competes in the
Western Riding Club Association shows. She has
participated in a variety of events including English and western pleasure,
barrels, poles, goat tying, breakaway roping, hide racing and many other
events. Van Valkenburg started training ponies when she was eight years old and
has trained “bigger-and-badder” horses ever since. She now works for the Bureau
of Land Management as part of the Trainer Incentive Program where she gentles
and breaks wild horses and places them into adopting homes. Van Valkenburg has
participated in two mustang trainer challenges. In the first challenge at the Utah Wild Horse and Burro Association, she took first place
on her sixty-day mustang, Champ. She took fourth in the Heber Cowboy Poetry
Festival’s Impact of the Horse competition and adopted her mustang, Spitfire.
Van Valkenburg is now studying at Utah in the Equine Science and Management program and
Journalism department Utah State University
In reporting this story, Van Valkenburg arrived at the event at The roping started at after all of the teams had signed up. After watching and interviewing some contestants during the first four and a half hours of the event, Van Valkenburg was approached was approached by organizer Shawn Judkins, who asked her if she was a journalist. When Van Valkenburg confirmed that she was a journalist working on a story about the event, Judkins demanded that she erase the video footage she had taken of the event and immediately leave. Van Valkenburg agreed to leave but refused to destroy the event footage, which she later shared with veterinarians and equine experts to gather more opinions about the sport of horse roping.