I like to write about things I like, and I usually don’t know if I like something until I try it. (For the record, parachuting is a big “NOT.”) So when I thought about making team roping the feature sport in my first Pinnacle Peak Mystery, HEIR APPARENT, I decided to saddle up and give it a try.

Growing up and grown up, I was always involved with horses—in polo, show jumping, harness ponies, and trail riding—but it wasn’t until I attended the Calgary Stampede a few years ago I discovered another aspect of the horse in sport: rodeo. An even better discovery was that real life cowboys are braver and more talented than the ones I had grown up watching on television. Roughstock riders take enormous risks for little money and less fame. The timed event competitors have true working partnerships with their horses. And I liked the way they all tipped their hats and called me “Ma’am.”

I found a pair of up-and-coming team ropers (the T brothers), who agreed to teach me the basics of the sport. Lesson number one: practice with your hat on. You naturally keep your throwing arm close to your head. When you add several inches of hat, you have to lift your arm higher to clear it. Otherwise your first loop sends your headwear spinning into the dirt “just like a dude’s.” I soon learned “acting like a dude” was to be avoided at all costs. So I spent many evenings in the driveway, clad in cowboy hat and boots, throwing loops that looked more like handfuls of spaghetti than Roy Roger’s perfect ovals.

When I could throw and keep my hat on, I progressed to the roping dummy—a plastic cow’s head stuck into a bale of hay plunked in the middle of the front lawn. After several weeks, it was time to try tossing loops from the back of Hana, one of my polo ponies who had once been a roping horse. She waited patiently while I threw at fence posts, the roping dummy, anything that was immobile. I’ll never forget the look on my unsuspecting friend’s face when my loop floated over his head and snugged around his chest. I was as happy as the first day I rode my bike without training wheels.

When the T brothers decided I was ready for a mobile target, it was time to let the goats out. Released through the same chutes used for the calves and steers, the little buggers would squirt across the arena, me and Hana in hot pursuit. The cowboys working on the ranch would sit on the top rail of the arena and cheer us on. The first time I actually looped a goat, they all cheered—then rescued me from my efforts to disengage the little fellow. I had dismounted and hustled across the arena to free the goat. I was supposed to grab him in a bear hug, then loosen my rope. My hug wasn’t bear quality. The goat slipped free and circled around behind me, still snagged by my lariat. The rope wrapped once around my shins, and down I went. For a week, I endured cowboy jokes about the goat hogtieing the cowgirl.

My first attempt at roping calves didn’t go much better. Sitting atop Hana, I threw and threw but couldn’t get a loop over a single head. So I put Hana up, then went back to the arena on foot to practice more throws. The ranch hands were moving stock through the arena where I was throwing. The instant I released, a wayward calf scampered across the dirt and ran directly into the path of my loop. Instinctively I pulled it tight. I don’t know who was more surprised. “I got one!” I shouted. In my excitement, I forgot I wasn’t on Hana any more and didn’t have a saddle horn around which to dally my rope. The 250-pound calf kept running. He jerked me off my feet and water-skied me through the arena dirt until my brain got the message to my hand to let go. I had dirt everywhere—in my hair, in my boots, in my underwear. But I didn’t care. Because the cowboy who helped me up clapped me on the back and said “That was a good throw, Ma’am.” Definitely not like a dude’s.

Paired with one of the T brothers, I entered a local team roping event with reputedly slow and small stock. Brother T was the header, which meant he signaled for the steer, made the head catch, and turned the steer “around the corner”—a right angle from his direction of travel. At that point I was supposed to rope both the hind feet. Right before it was our turn to go, an old cowboy approached and patted Hana’s neck. “Lemme give you one bit of advice,” he said. “Make sure you keep your thumbs out of the way when you dally.” He raised his right hand. Where the thumb used to be was a reddish stump. “Good luck, Ma’am.”

I heard my name over the bullhorn, gathered up my reins (hard to do now that I was keeping my thumbs stuck straight up), and guided Hana into the heeler’s box. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brother T nod his head. The steer exploded out of the chute, and Hana leaped in pursuit. I twirled my loop over my head and tracked his path. But he never turned the corner. Brother T had done the improbable; he had missed. Later that night when he bought me my “heeler’s due” (a header who misses stands his partner to a drink and vice versa), Brother T told me how well I had done. “You were right where you were supposed to be, and your loop looked good.” He flashed me the familiar gesture. “Thumbs up, Twist,” he said, looking perplexed when I started to laugh.

This essay first appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, Issue No. 77 (2002).