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Learning the (team) ropes
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
A pair of world-class athletes slipped into town over the weekend.
They weren't Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan those two would have attracted enough media attention that you would've heard about it 10 minutes into their appearance.
These athletes Jake Barnes of Arizona and Bobby Harris from Wyoming are quiet, approachable men who, when they're not competing, are out teaching the finer points of their sport.
That would be team roping, one of the most exciting few seconds of sports entertainment around.
Over the weekend, Barnes and Harris were the clinicians for the seventh annual team roping school at the Mackenzie Ranch, where 50 ropers ranging from beginner to intermediate levels learned and practiced a sport the two champions have spent a lifetime mastering.
Barnes is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame "header" the one who initially ropes the steer and turns it, so that the "heeler," Harris, can then rope the back legs. Once that feat is accomplished, the two cowboys turn their horses, and one of the quickest and most exciting events in sport is complete.
Barnes is a seven-time world champion, and Harris is a world-champion heeler and 16-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo.
But even with those lofty qualifications, the two men found time to talk Saturday during their long day of teaching, encouraging and, sometimes, cajoling.
"I love working with kids, because they haven't developed any bad habits yet," says Barnes. "At this age, they have a lot of drive, and they pick things up quicker."
The weekend class, for intermediate-level ropers, is a mix of teenagers and adults. One beginning header drove all the way from Bozeman, Mont., just to spend the day Friday learning from Barnes.
A pair of Baker City headers in training, Katelyn White and Julie Williams, say they attended the class for two reasons: to learn, and to experience "the rush" that is at the heart of team roping.
"Jake's really patient, and he's willing to listen to anything you want to say," Williams said. "But I'm here for the adrenaline rush. It's so exciting once you get into it. It's been a lot of fun so far."
"All you have to do is rope off a horse," Williams said with a smile, noting the sport is not nearly so easy as it looks.
In fact, Barnes said, it is not uncommon for team ropers to lose a finger in an accident. That's why the two men stress safety during their clinics.
Hereford resident Mark Fillmore said he's been roping a long time, but still learned "a lot of finer points" from the two instructors.
"We're ranchers, so this is a sport we can understand. I think horsemanship is probably 70 percent of the sport," he said, pausing for a moment atop his wife's horse named Goldbar. "A good horse is worth a lot."
While he, too, appreciated the quality of instruction that he received from the two clinicians, Fillmore said the best part for him was that his entire family could attend the class.
"The reason this sport is growing so fast is that it's so family-oriented," he said. "Wives and kids can rope, too. It's just a real good school to bring your family to. The people are nice and friendly, and there's a real family-oriented feel to it.
"And it's always good to take your horse to a different place than where it's working all the time."
A lot to think about in five seconds
Straight out of the chute, cowboys have "at least 30 things" to think about in the five seconds it takes a professional team to rope a steer, Barnes said. The best ropers, he said, are not so much the most athletic, but the best thinkers.
"The most important thing to do is keep your composure and execute the fundamentals," Barnes said, "but at the same time, you're adjusting to the situation. The steer and the horse pattern is different every time. It's your job to make it as consistent as you can every time."
When he wasn't evaluating students, Barnes spent part of a break idly twirling a rope and doing tricks reminiscent of Will Rogers.
Barnes has taught the clinic at the Mackenzie Ranch each of the event's seven years. This marked Harris' third year.
At the heart of his sport, Harris says, is the bond that humans and horses share. A good horse senses when extra care is required, he believes.
"A horse knows when he's got a kid on top, and he takes care of the kid," he said.
Harris says it's the opportunity to teach children that keeps him active during the springtime clinic season. Each year he appears at some 15 clinics around the country.
"The kids are so pure," he said. "You can see on their faces the kick they get out of (roping). You can also tell who's been practicing since the previous year. We can tell them what they need to do to improve, but they've got to practice" in order to get to the next level.