Training Your Heel Horse: The Very First Steps

Maybe you’ve just acquired a heel horse and are starting at square one. Or maybe you have a little experience under your belt, and are honing in on your roping technique. Either way, this guide can help you learn how to train your heel horse from the very beginning. 

Even a horse that’s used to being ridden will have to acclimate to several new things to be a successful heel horse. It will have to get used to seeing the rope, following a dummy, and later, chasing cattle. You’ll also have to learn how you want it to approach the steer during and after your throw. 

Experienced team ropers compare heeling to the precision of a golf swing. But before you can dial in on your rope, you’ll need to get your heel horse used to what you want it to do.

Before you even begin, it’s important to have a solid relationship with your horse. Trust is important and it’s best to first develop that relationship by spending time and riding your heeling horse. And that’s what we’re going to focus on in this blog post. From there, you may want to start with a dummy and then graduate to a live calf or steer. Letting your heeling horse get comfortable will be time well spent. But more on that later! 

Important Cattle Heeling Terms to Know 

If you’re new to the sport, then there may be a few terms or aspects of team roping you may be unfamiliar with. These things are good to know: 

What Is Team Roping? 

When two individuals work together to rope or “capture” a steer, it’s called team roping. One person (the header) lassos the front of the steer, typically by their horns. Right after that happens, the other person lassos the steer by the back legs. This rider is known as the “heeler”.

Team roping is a sport that evolved from cowboys’ need to rope animals like steer or oxen. This was for a variety of reasons, such as branding the animal, tending to its health, or getting it back in pasture. Any animal that was too big for one man to stop on his own power needed roping. Team roping is now a timed sport that requires the collaboration and talents of both riders and horses.

What Is A Heel Horse?

A heel horse is a horse ridden by the heeler. It is trained to get in close to the steer so the heeler can rope the steer’s back legs. 

What Does It Mean To ‘Leg One?’

This is when the heeler manages to rope only one of the hind legs and the team is charged with a 5-second penalty.

Important Steps to Training Your Heel Horse 

We know you’re excited to get to riding and roping. But before you can start earning accolades in the ring, you must develop a strong relationship with your heel horse. There are several steps to training a green heel horse, and we will walk you through a few of them here.

Heeler and header roping a steer, with text from blog post. 

Building a Bond

There are a lot of ways to bond with your horse, with and without riding them. Non-riding bonding activities might include:

  • Encouraging mutual grooming
  • Positive reinforcement or clicker training
  • Going for a walk with your horse
  • Playing spook-busting games with your horse
  • Non-riding agility challenges
  • Spending quality time together with no activity

Some other tips include minding your emotions around your horse, staying consistent and assertive, and learning your horse’s physical cues for good and bad emotions. 

For example, an anxious horse may dance around, stomp or snort. A relaxed horse will close its eyes, chew its teeth, and relax one leg. Knowing how to read your horse’s cues is important and can save you both a lot of time and frustration.

Creating Positive Associations

Horses enjoy being in the pasture. Spending time there with them can help them appreciate your presence more. If you’re only around them during tough training, they may link you with discomfort and effort.

There are several ways to promote a positive association for your horse. Spend time with them in places where they’re most happy and relaxed, and give positive reinforcement. Allow the horse to associate you with security, comfort, and fun.

To be known as something good, you must make your rewards greater than your expectations. That means you could ask your horse to perform something and then highly praise them as they do it.

Image of steer running away from roper and horse, and text from the blog post giving heel horse tips.

Communicating With Your Horse 

Calm, confident and authoritative are how you should be when communicating with your horse. You want the horse to trust you and consider you like a dominant member of its herd. 

When you’re talking, use short words like “whoa,” or “trot”. Horses have trouble with anything more than three syllables. 

Your body language is as important as what you say, especially when you’re riding. You will use your hands on the reins, your legs, and your body positioning to send messages to your horse as you ride. 

Investing in a Dummy

Once you’ve established a deeper connection with your horse, you may want to consider purchasing a training dummy. These dummies feature spring-loaded legs, and can be pulled behind a UTV, ATV, or other vehicle. This will give you the opportunity to practice roping and get your heeling horse familiar with the sport, before graduating to chasing a live steer.

Of course, there are a few steps before you get to this point. And that’s where X Factor comes into play. 

How X Factor Team Roping Can Help

X Factor Team Roping has tons of great videos with tips from expert riders. We have an extensive library of training videos that are available through our membership portal. Learn about roping dummies, lasso techniques, and much more. We also have exclusive live streams. You can watch the best open ropings, and get online coaching from some of the most accomplished riders worldwide. Click here to start your free trial. 

Image of two men riding horses and roping, and text promoting X Factor Roping membership.


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Hear What Others Are Saying About X Factor Roping

Brad, Texas

Being able to watch the slow mo videos have really been a blessing for me. It’s helped me learn my delivery for heeling. Along with how and where my horse needs to be. Some nights my girlfriend and I will break down videos to help us out. She has really progressed in breakaway roping because of watching your videos.

Lauren, California

X Factor has completely changed my mindset in my practice, how I compete and shaped a lot of my horsemanship while roping. I have ridden horses, trained, and barrel raced all my life, but within the past 3 years I have started to rope. I had a young horse I knew I couldn't finish in the barrels because she isn't very fast, but would make a great heel horse. So I set off on an adventure of training a rope horse, all while also learning to rope myself! Lucky me, my horse is a natural at reading cattle and watching a corner, but it was still a learning curve. My X Factor membership purchase was a turning point for my positioning, warm up for my heel horse and my body control translating to my horse when delivering. X Factor was also when my "self teaching" of how to heel really took off! Watching videos over and over, taking notes and exploring all of the different pros to learn from was what really helped me start to figure out my swing, timing and delivery.

Clay, Missouri

It has helped my horsemanship out a lot. My favorite part about the site is by far the Facebook coaching group. Ryan Motes series on advancing through the different levels of heeling has helped me the most. My mental game has improved significantly.. And it has changed the way I practice I used to just run steers now I practice to accomplish something.

Daniel, Mississippi

I love X Factor, it has helped me work on everything from dummy work to horsemanship. I’ve roped and been doing something wrong, go home and find my problem on the website. I’ve started roping in the practice pin a lot different where I use to just go make runs I now have a goal on every steer I run. Thank you, keep doing what y’all are doing!!

Blaine, Mississippi

It has help me tremendously with my horsemanship, the way I practice, and also how approach certain situation. My favorite part of the site is all the different categories you can choose from to work on. Love it

Jordynn, Canada

X Factor has helped me probably the most in my horsemanship which is precisely why I was interested in becoming a member to begin with. So mission accomplished. My favourite parts about the site is the horsemanship videos. And the videos of the ropings. I would say the Joseph Harrison and the Ryan Motes videos have helped me the most. Both a great horsemen and I like how they Really break down what they’re doing with their colts I practice completely different than I used to. And with me being a colt starter and rope horse trainer I take a lot from the horse training videos. And really appreciate them being available.

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