The cowboy's rope - an essential tool of the trade
The cowboy’s rope – an essential tool of the trade

A cowboy doesn’t call it a lasso, though. A more technical term would be ‘lariat’ from the Spanish ‘la reata’ which means strap or rope used for tying two beasts of burden together. But mostly cowboys just call it a rope.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a length of rope with a small reinforced loop at one end called a ‘honda’ (or sometimes ‘hondo’) which is the Spanish for sling. The idea is to create a circle by means of passing the rope through the honda, and then throw the resultant noose around a target – which would be, for example, the horns or the hind legs of a steer – and then pull to tighten it.

There are multitudes of different kinds of rope – different materials, different weights, and different stiffnesses which is the ‘lay’ factor. Traditionally, braided or twisted rawhide was used, or hemp, which was known to break and could cause the loss of an eye. These materials have given way to nylon or polypropylene (poly) which are easier to look after – just rinse the rope off and let it dry after it gets muddy. However connoisseurs often choose the mixed material poly-grass because the element of natural fibre feels nicer to use. A rope made of poly-grass is something of a prima donna because it has to have the correct moisture content and, in order to achieve this, be put in the sun, or the shade, and then in an airtight container once the balance is right.

The type of rope is dictated not only by personal preference but also by the job being done – for example whether it’s being used for breakaway roping, heading or heeling. Breakaway ropers know their rope will do a great deal of dragging around in the mud behind a calf so they tend to go for poly ropes. Headers like a soft rope that will, as it were, mould itself to the horns, curl round and fit snugly. Heelers mostly use a very stiff rope which will maintain its circle when swung and so travel under and capture the steer’s hind legs.

Roping a steer at a rodeo
Roping a steer at a rodeo

In order to build up their skill, cowboys spend many hours roping a dummy steer, which might be some horns fixed on a hay bale. The first thing they learn is how to coil the rope, then how to build a loop which should be about their own height. The coils are about a foot or slightly more in diameter while the ‘spoke’, which is the doubled part of the rope between the hand and the honda, is about an arm’s length. The next step is swinging the rope, which involves the cowboy being repeatedly in and out of his own loop, and then they’re ready to catch the horns of the dummy – but this is only the beginning!

Like with any complex skill, there’s the right way and the wrong way. Throwing a rope was born of necessity and was honed over time to impressive efficiency. It’s still a very desirable accomplishment on the range as well as in rodeos.

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