Every year, cowgirls and cowboys from throughout the West gather in the small California community of Santa Ynez, just north of Santa Barbara, for nothing short of the world’s richest ranch roping competition. This is the granddaddy of them all, attracting not only the best ranch ropers, but those who aspire to be. This is the Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping, which pairs experts with novices in a chance to win money and prizes, all in the spirit of the Vaquero tradition.
Created by legendary horseman Buck Brannaman and frequent collaborator William Reynolds, the Brannaman Pro-Am is produced these days by Buck’s daughter, Reata.
The first-time observer of this traditional ranch occupation might think the action is a bit slow. And that is precisely the point. Adhering to the Vaquero tradition of tending to and protecting the ranch’s most valuable assets with slow and gentle handling, ranch roping utilizes age-old techniques, horsemanship, and gear to achieve a somewhat graceful approach to the everyday tending to cattle.
I had the pleasure of catching up with the key principles of the Brannaman Pro-Am–Buck Brannaman, William Reynolds, and Reata Brannaman, during an unusually hot fall weekend in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. I wanted to learn first-hand what the calmer and gentler approach to stockmanship was all about, and how the trio has translated the tradition into a sport where cowboys and cowgirls can compete and display their skills and Vaquero style.
What is ranch roping?
“It’s the style of roping that we do on ranches, doctoring cattle, doctoring baby calves,” says Buck Brannaman, founder and namesake of the Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping. “You might have huge pastures and no place to pen the cattle if you had to give something a shot, that was sick. By having the skills to catch something on the end of a rope with your horse you can be a steward of your cattle.”
“It’s the traditional method of handling livestock and it goes back to the more traditional methods used by cowboys on the ranch,” says Reata Brannaman, producer of the Pro-Am. “Trying to do a job and take care of the livestock and the cattle and handle them as quietly as possible. It’s a way for people to compete and show their skills in stockmanship, more so than just a timed event.”
“Ranch roping represents sort of a recreation of what actually happens on a ranch when you’re working stock,” says Reynolds. “You want to operate very slowly and carefully to protect the stock. So what we have is a three-man type of roping that replicates what happens out in the world. It’s a classic example of slow being fast.”
My first observation was, well, a bit perplexing. Never before having attended a ranch roping event, I was expecting something along the lines of a traditional rodeo, like steer roping or team roping. What I got to see was a deliberate attempt to catch and rope young cattle using artisanal rawhide reatas with a sort of gracefulness and a style fitting of the Vaquero tradition.
“I think that the competitive nature in a lot of equine events these days has so much to do with speed and not so much the animals, and the finesse that goes behind it,” says Reata. “And there’s a lot of finesse in this sport to where you have to have the skill to be able to read a situation and go as slow as possible.”
How is it scored?
“It’s almost more about what you don’t do, than what you do,” explains Reynolds. “The plan of attack, if you will, is to interact with the animal as gently as possible. So in the case of roping it, you want to rope its neck very gently. You want to get both hind feet, so that there is no painful movement for them, so you can lay them down as easily and quickly as possible. Efficiency, gentleness, and a little bit of flair, in this case, is how we judge the best ropers.”
Being the brainchild of Buck Brannaman and his oft-collaborator, William Reynolds, a lot of time was spent perfecting the Pro-Am. Everything from the location to the rules were spelled out before the inaugural event five years ago.
“Well, like anything, people like to compete at things, and we’re all very proud of our skills as cowboys,” Buck explains. “So with that came the sport of ranch roping.”
“It’s more of a presentation—an opportunity for people to really see what it’s like on the ranch,” says Reynolds. In this case, because it comes from the Vaquero culture, which is really about subtlety, the more that these guys and gals got out there and roped, they started seeing that was kind of a fun thing to do. So somebody said, well, let’s judge this, and see, who can do it the best?”
Fast forward to the Brannaman Pro-Am Vaquero Roping.
“For years, I went to a big ranch roping called the Californios where the cream of the crop would compete, but there was never really any access for good ropers to come to town and see how they measured up against everybody,” recalls Buck. “In the past few years, I got pretty interested in golf, and I thought, “Gosh, that Pro-Am thing in golf is kind of a cool deal, because amateurs get to play with the wolves. And that’s sort of what started the idea.”
Reata explains, “The first year we did it, my dad had the idea with Bill Reynolds, and they got the ball rolling. And then they didn’t really have the organization or the time to carry through with it and actually get it done to where it needed to be done. I had put on quite a few ranch ropings and so I volunteered my time. But then it kinda became my baby and I started doing it.
“But, it’s not just me, it’s not just dad, it’s not just Bill, it’s Isaac Johnson who works for dad. He really plays a big part in helping with all of this. And all of the girls—I bring about 15 girls from Montana that come here with me to help put the event on that have been coming since the first year. Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.”
And there is a reason the event takes place in Santa Ynez.
“We specifically have it here, because this is kind of ground zero for the Vaquero culture,” explains Reynolds. “Most of the big Mexican land grant ranches that came after the missions were secularized in the late 1820s, most of those ranches had Vaqueros who originally worked on the missions, and then moved on to these ranches. So as that life progressed until the mid-1860s, it created a legacy and when we decided to figure out how to do it the best, it was natural to have it here, because this is the place—this is the Tigris and Euphrates of Vaquero culture.”
Unlike a lot of the timed events in which cattle play a role in a male dominated culture, ranch roping appears to include an equal part of male and female competitors. I asked Buck and Reata, why ranch roping attracts so many women.
“Well it’s not about how physical you are, or how strong you are,” Buck insists. “It’s about how you handle your horse, and a woman can swing a rope just as good as a man can. It’s a level playing field.
“You know, the interesting thing, no one here really thinks about it as men and women,” continues Reata. “Because in the ranching industry, there’s men and there’s women and they both play a part, and they both have their different jobs. But one supports the other. It’s just, ‘Can you do the job?’ And if you can, go do it. And if you can’t, don’t do it. And whether that be a man or a woman, it doesn’t really matter. And I think that for this, especially, a lot of women appreciate it because you don’t have to be the strongest. You don’t have to be the fastest. But, you can be the smoothest. And you can be the prettiest out there. Whether you’re a man or a woman.”
What does it take to become a ranch roper?
“A lot of the men and women that come to compete here, they’re not only ranchers, but they’re also cowboys who work on different ranches around the country and different areas of the world,” says Reata. “We have people all the way from Australia. But, anyone can compete. There’s people that are really green that have just started ranch roping. And the cool thing about it is that you can go as slow as you need, to where they can develop their own skills and progress and educate themselves.”
Beyond the desire, you will need a horse and the appropriate gear.
“Well, frankly, a lot of ranch cowboys, they’re not riding high dollar horses,” explains Buck. “Although, there are some real handsome horses here, because they kind of bring the A-team when they come to town for this. But a lot of these guys make their living on horses that a lot of people wouldn’t want to be near, that are tough horses to ride, because a lot of the ranches don’t furnish them with high dollar horses. But, the ones that are here—these guys are proud of, they’ve worked hard on.”
“Generally you see lots of different type of gear here, Reynolds says. “We ask that everybody have at least 60 feet of rope in their hand. Most calf roping is done with 28 to 30 feet. But by having more rope, you can get longer shots, which do not surprise the cattle as much. They have a little more distance between the rider and the horse. By doing that, you’re not chasing them around trying to rope them. Generally you’ll see bigger horns on the saddle, because you can take fewer dallies. It’s all about being as gentle as you can. The gear is evolved to be something that is specific to that.”
One of the unique aspects of Brannaman’s brand of ranch roping is the emphasis placed on the Vaquero style. It’s not only the style of horsemanship, but the traditional tack, hats, clothing, and exquisite silver work so prevalent among the riders.
Buck explains, “The style of gear that we have and that we use, the headgear that we have on our horses, it’s a very proud tradition of horsemanship. This Vaquero style of horsemanship goes back to the conquistadors, which brought horsemanship to North America. And frankly, right in this area where we are is really where the first cowboy, the Vaquero, appeared in North America. I’m very much the purist and I really respect the tradition of this, and everybody else does too that’s here.”
Reata continues, “In this world, the cowboy world, there’s a lot of pride. People have pride in their horses, they have pride in the way that they do things—they have pride in themselves. It’s really a way for them to show off their horses, and you know, it’s the same as women wearing jewelry. I mean, it doesn’t serve a purpose in a lot of cases, but it looks good, and it makes us feel good. Same with our horses, same with the guys using the gear.”
This particular ranch roping event goes well beyond the competition. It is a gathering and celebration in the Vaquero tradition where artisans meld with the horsemen, bringing handcrafted wares to be displayed and sold in trade-show fashion.
“One of the additional benefits of putting this show on is that we attract some absolutely incredible craftswomen and men, makers from all over the country,” says Reynolds. “Whether it’s involved with Nevada Watt’s Fusion Show, or they’re just vendors here selling their works. People wait all year long to be able to work with people who hand-make things here in America, and they take it from start to finish. It is absolutely a bunch of cottage industries, where people are making one thing at the time. And it’s wonderful to have them be so enthusiastic, and be received so well by the public.”
How does one get involved?
“There are folks around that do ranch roping clinics,” encourages Buck. “I do ranch roping clinics and there are some others as well. Joe Walter, Dave Weaver, lot of different people that do them that, they’ll get people that have never handled a rope before, and it isn’t too long and we’ve got them swinging a rope. It’s like anything, you get a rope and you get a horse and you get started.”
Reata continues, “You know, you just gotta jump in head first. That’s kinda how it goes. If you want to do it, you gotta find someone that does it. You gotta find some way to immerse yourself. It’s the same as learning a language. When you’re around it every day, you learn it. You have to get into it.”