By Mr. Mark Schauer (ATEC)August 20, 2018
YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz.-- If you blink a few times, you'll miss it.
In an arena somewhere in the Western United States, distant mountains on the horizon beyond the metal fencing, a steer bolts out of a chute and bounds through tawny dirt.
On either side of the now-open chute are men on horses twirling lassos and sending their steeds pounding after the animal. When it's done with speed and precision, the rider on the outside of the steer--the header--casts their lasso around the animal's horns, head, or neck and guides it with authority into a hard left turn, giving his teammate--the heeler-- a clear shot to lasso the animal's rear legs as they leave the ground in a mighty gallop, immobilizing it.
The best roping teams accomplish it in mere seconds in front of cheering spectators, and a number of U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) personnel, among them Dale McKay, Augie Olaiz, Reed Rider, and Ever Castro, engage in the sport as a hobby--and a way of life.
"Its fun and you're in the moment," said Rider of YPG's Plans and Ops Division, who has won many competitions over the years. "A run might last for seven to 10 seconds on average, and there's a lot of focus and energy put into those few seconds and getting it right."
YPG Commander Col. Ross Poppenberger is another devotee of the sport.
"It's teamwork," he said. "You have to have a good working relationship with your partner."
Team roping's unique handicapping system allows individuals of all skill levels to participate--headers are rated on a three through nine scale, and heelers on a three through 10 scale.
"Unlike golf, we're handicapped up," explained Rider. "The higher you are, the better you are, with nines and 10s being professionals."
It seems the bulk of the sport's most devoted participants have been around horses and steers for most of their lives, and those here at YPG are no different.
"My grandfather raised quarter horses and I grew up riding, but I didn't really start roping until I was 15 or 16," recalled Rider. "I wasn't very serious or into it until then."
Poppenberger, who spent his childhood on a farm in Minnesota, also took up riding early, starting with a pony when he was very young. Earlier in his Army career he was a contacting officer at Fort Carson, Colorado, and was sought out by that post's mounted color guard for advice on horse purchases and equestrian gear and services.
"I've been around it pretty much all my life, in one aspect or another," he said.
Prior to being active in the sport, a college-age Poppenberger purchased a practice dummy and poured over books and instructional videos on the subject to perfect his roping technique.
"When I came into the Army, I could afford it and bought some horses. I started team roping while I was at Fort Hood in 1995. I got very involved and serious with it."
He was an avid roper for more than a decade before a deployment to Iraq and subsequent permanent change of station to Washington DC prevented him from keeping active in the sport.
Shortly after taking command at YPG in the summer of 2017, he casually checked out local arenas without discussing his years of experience. He felt that, given his new position, the time wasn't right to purchase horses and re-enter the roping world in earnest. It was a chance encounter with Rider while representing YPG at Yuma's annual Silver Spurs Rodeo Parade earlier this year that finally prompted him to devote more time to his longstanding passion.
"Reconnecting with Reed and these guys, I feel alive again," said Poppenberger. "For me, it's not about money, it's about the camaraderie and the community. It's yet another aspect that I love about being in Arizona."
Castro has seen a great deal of success as an amateur and still dreams of being able to rope professionally.
"I started roping here in town in a little backyard arena with my dad and his buddies and just got hooked," the Yuma native explained. "Everyone starts doing it for fun, but you have to do it every day to get good. We're the crazy guys who rope year-round, even when it is 120 degrees outside."
Castro has won as much as $80,000 in a single competition, competing against 600 teams from all over the world, and in excess of $100,000 in a single year. His fastest time ever was under five seconds. So why hasn't he quit his day job to pursue roping on the professional circuit?
"You can't win all the time," he said with a smile. "That's the hard part."
Also, he adds, it takes a lot of overhead to be able to sustain the hobby--hay alone for his 10 horses runs $100 a week, unless he is able to barter work for hay. Shodding the animals averaged out to another $100 a week until he learned how to do the job himself.
There is also the risk of injury--several years ago Castro broke his foot when a horse fell on him and was laid up for months.
Regardless of the skill level, number of competition wins, or amount of money won, the sport's true believers can't imagine themselves not participating.
"Some people are crazy about fishing or golf or some other activity that drives them," said Poppenberger. "For me, it's team roping. I could do that over almost anything."