With a gentle nudge of her spurs, a cowgirl coaxes her mount into position. The horse backs up a few short steps until his rear haunches press against the heavy steel corner railing that defines the back of the starting box. For a few seconds, he fidgets just inches shy of a glowing electronic eye beam which, if violated before a steer has been released from its confining chute, will cost this team an automatic five-second penalty.
After a few seconds, the horse settles, ears perked alertly and eyes toward the still-confined steer, which has been prepped with horn wraps as protection from the cinching lasso loop that will interrupt its all-out sprint down and across the arena.
With her horse ready, reins held loosely in her left hand and open lasso loop high in her right, the header gives the official a subtle nod. The clunk of the chute's gate opening is instantly followed by an explosion of pent-up power as the horse bolts into pursuit 2 yards behind the sprinting steer. As she twirls the lasso loop the cowgirl, also called a header, releases it to settle over the steer's protected horns.
On the opposite side of the steer chute, another horse and rider—known as the heeler--have catapulted into the chase, just behind the header. The heeler throws his loop around the steer's rear hooves. In a well-practiced bit of horse and rider ballet, he stops and pulls the rope taut as his header teammate tightens her rope so the steer is splayed onto the soft dirt floor of the arena.
If they are successful, an official flagger signals to stop the clock.
This team is just one of hundreds who competed in June at Double D Arena in Wirtz during a team roping competition. Dale and Debbie Simmons, as well as their grown children, Coleman, Chad and Shelly, hosted ropers from 10 states, including Pennsylvania, Alabama and Texas.
The event is one of 25 World Series Team Roping and U.S. Team Roping competitions sponsored annually by Jx2 NTRL Productions whose owner John Johnson, 53, travels from Piney Flats, Tennessee (near Bristol) to each event, along with a team of helpers.
They use laptops loaded with up-to-the-minute stats on each roper’s success percentages, average times for steer takedowns, number of wins/placings and annual prize winnings—all rolled into a handicap rating that indicates roping prowess.
“Handicapping saved the sport,” Johnson said. “Because of it, ropers compete against people of similar abilities and feel they have a fair chance of earning prize money any given weekend.”
Cash purses and other prizes are much of what bring the ropers to each event, Johnson explained. Owning horses, transporting several to a competition and spending weekends on the road is costly. But the prizes can be significant. Simmons and younger son Chad, 30, split $5,750 for fastest time in one event. Chad and another partner split a $3,000 second place in that same division.
Prizes can also include saddles, silver belt buckles, knives and even pickup trucks. Chad, in fact, pulled a new horse trailer home from Piney Flats last year.
“The Simmons guys rope really well, ride good horses and win enough to be respected throughout the circuit,” Johnson stated. “They've won in Las Vegas at an annual December competition held in conjunction with the National Rodeo Finals; they've won in Jacksonville and in Oklahoma City where the purses can total $4 million over a week's worth of roping events.”
The Double D Arena, which is located on Brooks Mill Road, is one of the finest private roping facilities Johnson visits, he said. The Simmons family owns and operates an excavating business — “to pay the horse bills,” Dale joked — but raising and competing with quarter horses is their passion.
Dale, who was raised near what is now Westlake Corner, moved to the 200-acre property in 1980 and began competing in roping events in 1995. Two years ago, he built the 140-foot by 270-foot arena pole barn to complement the property’s other structures, including a barn sufficient for raising 90 cattle, stalls for horses and covered shelters for the 40 to 50 excavating machines his company owns.
The state-of-the-art arena with its roping ring measures 100 feet by 220 feet. At one end is a two-story enclosure containing a tack room and a second-floor observation area with large windows and a desk for an announcer and scorekeeper. Competition lighting, a high-end public address system, restrooms and a kitchen, where Dale's family helps keep roping teams fed, round out the basic amenities. There is also a 4-acre parking lot that can accommodate up to 100 trucks and trailers, as well as electric and water hook-ups for those who need them.
The team of Clint Copenhaver and Troy Ryles brought their rig from Macon, Georgia — their third competition weekend in a row. “It sort of gets in your blood,” Clint said, “and the people are nice to be around. Horse people are great people.”
Dale Simmons agreed. “Hosting these events takes a lot of preparation and some clean-up afterwards. But we enjoy having the team ropers come here to compete. And local residents are more than welcome to stop by and catch the action.”