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Chip Schweiger

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Most of us can easily recognize a cowboy by his hat, spurs, and the saddled horse from which he swings a lariat rope. In fact, the lariat (derived from the Spanish term “la reata” meaning to catch or fasten) is one of the most versatile tools a cowboy has at their disposal. While it’s sometimes also referred to as a reata, riata, or a lasso, the term lasso is actually a verb, as in the action of throwing the loop of rope around something. In fact, there is no faster way to tag yourself as a layman than by calling a lariat a “lasso.” Most people, however, who actually use a lariat, typically refer to it simply as a rope, and the act of using it, as roping.

For today, I’ll refer to this iconic cowboy tool as either a lariat or a rope. A cowboy’s lariat is made from a stiffened rope so that the noose, commonly referred to by cowboys as a loop, stays open when the lariat is thrown. A stiff lariat also allows a cowboy to easily open up the loop from horseback to release cattle, as the rope is stiff enough to be manipulated just enough in the hands of an experienced cowhand. The lariat has a small reinforced loop at one end, called a honda or hondo, through which the rope passes to form the throwing loop. The hondo can be formed by a honda knot (or another loop knot), an eye splice, a seizing, rawhide, or by a metal ring. The other end of the lariat is sometimes tied simply in a small, tight, overhand knot to prevent fraying with the unraveled strings left loose to provide a visual cue as to the end of the rope.

A traditional reata used for ranch roping.

Most modern lariats are made of stiff nylon or polyester rope, usually about 5/16ths of an inch or 3/8ths of an inch in diameter and come in lengths of 28, 30, or 35 feet for arena-style roping, and anywhere from 45 to 70 feet for vaquero-style cattle roping. The reata is made of braided (or less commonly, twisted) rawhide and is made in lengths from 50 feet to over 100 feet. A reata can be different levels of stiffness (called lays, in roping circles) depending on what type of rawhide is used.  For instance, bull hide makes a very stiff rope suitable for heel roping. 

And, if you’re curious, the traditional Mexican way to treat a reata, to keep it supple, is to tie it between two trees, rub it first with lemon juice (cut a fresh lemon in half and rub the fruit along the length) and then rub it with beef fat.  Yep, you read that right! This process keeps the leather from drying out or becoming stiff since artificial products will make the reata too limber.  A Mexican maguey is a type of “grass” rope made of agave fiber (the word “maguey” means “agave” in Spanish) and are also used in the longer lengths of the reata.

Competitors carrying lariats for a team roping competition.
Photo courtesy of Heather Moreton.

As you can imagine, there are about as many styles, sizes, price points, and options for ropes as there are for shoes. You can get ropes in a variety of lengths, colors, levels of softness, and made out of a range of materials, with the main difference between a cowboy’s lariat and a common rope being the extra stiffness of a lariat. The standard rope you’ll see used at most rodeo events of team roping and tie-down roping is made of braided nylon and is between 30 and 35 feet in length. Although these shorter nylon ropes can be used for ranch chores, it is common to have what is known as a ranch rope for work around the ranch.

A ranch rope is a type of lariat that is much longer than its rodeo brethren. Ranch ropes can easily be between 50 or 60 feet long, and are generally not as stiff. Ranch roping is almost never the fast paced action you see in the rodeo arena, with the primary difference being that for ranch roping the cowhand is dealing with a herd of livestock rather than a single animal. Successful ranch roping demands accuracy and controlling the movements of the animal.

After catching the cattle, the lariat can be tied or wrapped (dallied) around a saddle horn, but make sure to get those fingers out of the way! With the rope dallied around the horn, the cowboy has greater leverage over the livestock, and can effectively use his horse as the equivalent of a tow truck with a winch to get the animal to where it needs to be. Ropes, when not in use are typically carried on the saddle horn by use of a leather strap, which may be fitted with a buckle to aid in ease of use when needed at a branding pit or to catch a runaway calf.

Is a lariat really that different?

Other than the weight, material and construction of a lariat, what really separates the rope used by a cowboy from every other rope is the skill of the cowhand who wields it. Skill that has been honed through years of catching horses in the morning to be used in that day’s work, dragging steers for doctoring at mid-day, or generally roping every manner of thing sitting around a campfire during the evening. Cowboys love their ropes as an essential tool of their trade, such that they are constantly perfecting their craft. In fact, visit any high school with a rodeo team and you will see a herd of students walking around with their rope at the ready, looking to lasso everything and anything. Cowboys use their ropes to catch livestock, horses and occasionally those whom they are courting (if you catch my drift). But, to successfully deploy their rope takes practice and patience to find the exact moment to throw the loop so that it will catch its intended moving target. And, skill and patience are exactly what separates the skilled ropers from ropers like me.

A rope attached to a saddle horn.

So, I got to thinking: while skill can be obtained through repetition, what about patience? Most of us recognize that patience is an invaluable trait in life to deal with the frustrations we face. Every morning, noon, and night there are plenty of good reasons to be impatient. A long line to get that morning coffee. Co-workers who want to stop by for a chat when we have piles of work in front of us. Or sitting around at home thinking about how a goal isn’t materializing fast enough. How do we deal with it all? Often, we get frustrated. And, when we are frustrated, what we are most often in need of is a healthy dose of patience.

The power of patience

Patience doesn’t mean being passive or resigning ourselves to inaction. In fact, it means power. Power over our emotions and power to make our move at exactly just the right time. I’ve written before about sometimes needing to take action, because I believe there are times when we need to simply take any action to get started. But, what I’m referring to here is other times when we are best served by the emotionally-freeing practice of waiting, watching, and knowing when to act to get the best results. Just like a cowboy, there is value in waiting for just the right moment to throw our loop. And, with that act of patience comes the confidence of knowing that when that moment comes, we’ll be ready.

Experience tells us when we need to act and when we need to exercise a bit of patience. It’s a tricky balance though, right? We are often frustrated in modern society because we become agitated and intolerant of waiting when our needs aren’t being met. For many of us, including me, it comes from a serious inability to delay gratification! We can order a full meal in less than a minute, we’re able to send an e-mail message around the globe in a few seconds, and we simply can’t bear to stand in a line, any line for more than a moment. It makes us crazy! In short (see what I did there?), we’ve become too used to instantaneous and immediate results. Surely there is great value to doing some things quickly. But, I believe we also miss the magic of the life we live when we always go too quickly. When we let our impatience and frustration get the better of us, we often miss the elegant simplicity in the little things.


“The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things.”

– Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove

Practicing patience can help all of us alleviate stress and give us the freedom to choose how to respond to disappointment and frustration. When we can stay calm, centered and not act out of frustration, all areas of our life will improve. And, I believe we’ll find that the success we’ve been seeking will be caught in the loop of our rope. Like the cowboy, sometimes waiting just a moment more for the right opportunity to act can make all the difference. I know for me, purposeful patience is a virtue I would very much like to master in my life and in my roping. So, with that, I’m off to the roping pen for a little practice.

Until next time, happy trails! ★

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