For one roping team, rodeo’s most complex sport is an escape from the drought back home
June 30, 2017
What is $1,300 really worth?
For Clint Gorrell and Tim Franzen, it's worth a nine-hour, 595-mile drive on Thursday from Sidney, in the badlands of eastern Montana, through the desolate grasslands of Wyoming, their trailer and horses in tow, to the Stampede in Greeley where in 6.4 seconds they shot out of a gate chasing a steer, roped it round the head and heels then, their time not good enough to qualify for Monday's finals, packed up their animals and moved on to the next rodeo and hopefully, the next purse.
Such is the life of team ropers — long drives, short, intense bursts of competition and no margin for error — in perhaps the most intricate and complex rodeo event.
The bucking events take steady nerves and steady hands; bullfighting guts, agility and showmanship; steer wrestling a combination of the above; barrel racing total control of your horse.
Team roping requires pinpoint timing, exquisite precision and above all complete trust in your partner. In their draw Thursday night, Gorrell and Franzen were one of just three teams — out of 10 — who successfully roped their steer.
Teams are comprised of a header and a heeler. They sit on their horses behind gates on either side of the steer. Their target is released, and once it's raced to a predetermined head start the ropers' gates open.
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The header must lasso the steer around the neck, or both horns, or one horn and the nose, then fix their rope to their saddle. If they miss their throw, the team is disqualified.
Once the head is secure, the header turns the steer away from the heeler, giving him a shot at the beast's hind legs. This is when timing becomes paramount. The heeler has to time his throw with the steer's kicks to rope both back legs at once. Again, they get one shot. If they rope only one leg, the team is assessed a five-second penalty.
"When you first start, it's a struggle," said Franzen, the heeler. "But when you learn how to catch, then it kind of starts clicking. It's all about, when the steer's feet are back, your loop needs to be forward. You have to have your swing timed up, so when you deliver it, the feet are back."
The trust came easy for Gorrell and Franzen, who are distant cousins and have known each other their entire lives. Franzen lives in Sidney, Gorrell in Beach, just 30 minutes away across the North Dakota border.
They began roping together in high school. This is their first year as professional partners but they've practiced together since they started. They don't practice like they compete — that would be too hard on their horses, the faster heading one and the shorter, stockier heeling one — but Gorrell and Franzen get much of the practice they need in their everyday ranching work.
They're lucky they get to practice at all; both of them have roped with partners who live hours away, where they just have to show up to the rodeo and figure it out.
"There is a lot of chemistry that you have to find with each other," Gorrell said, "to know exactly what he's gonna do every time."
They don't normally venture this far from their homes to rope. Ranching, not roping, is their full-time job. Franzen has a wife and two young children in Sidney, on the banks of the Yellowstone River, and Gorrell has a girlfriend in Beach, a place Theodore Roosevelt once greatly offended with his astonishment that a town could even exist in such an arid landscape, an insult Teddy doubled down on when he suggested to ranchers there that for conservation purposes they should raise only one cow for every 12 acres of land they owned.
But 2017 isn't a normal year. Gorrell's and Franzen's homeland is in the midst of its worst drought in decades; after record precipitation in 2015 and 2016, this year has seen only 25 percent of the normal precipitation. Montana governor Steve Bullock just declared a state of emergency.
"No hay, no grass," Franzen said. "It's easier to go rodeo because there's really nothing to do at home. You're scared to do anything because you're scared you're gonna start a fire. All the old timers, like my dad, he claims it's the worst since the '80s."
The rodeo gives Gorrell and Franzen an escape from the blistering heat and brutal winds, which Gorrell says approach 30 miles per hour almost every day. They head out to find what they've got, talking through the whole nine-hour drive to Greeley, listening to music, joking about how much greener things look as they get further south.
Gorrell and Franzen spent Thursday night at the Stampede, then took off first thing the next morning for a rodeo in Steamboat Springs, then to Cody, Wyo., then back to their local circuit, then after one day off at home back to Wyoming for Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Their next payday could come at any of these. As for their full-time job, their ranches, all they can do is hope for next year.