One of the challenges of improving during roping practice is discovering drills that replicate the process of riding a horse and roping a calf, and top roper and clinician Jennifer Casey has a solution: balance tools.
Using these tools, Casey builds the muscle memory needed to rope and catch on a moving horse.
“I’ve been doing clinics since 2000,” Casey said, noting she began the same year she earned her masters in physical therapy from Pacific University. Casey has since added a doctorate as well as a post graduate certification in sensory integration.
The two-time Columbia River WPRA Breakaway Champion has spent the bulk of her career working in the school system with the special needs population and has recently become an IPEC Certified Coaching Candidate, a program that perfectly fits with her passion for teaching.
“I love it,” Casey said of the program which involves approximately ten hours of coursework per week. “It’s intense.”
Thanks to her day job, Casey has focused on both the mental aspects of roping as well as the mechanics of putting your body in the right place to be a proficient breakaway roper.
“I’ve found working with kids, they’re usually doing other things like sports, and even the adults, they’re active. They’re riding horses, carrying hay bales and water buckets,” Casey said. “It’s not that their muscles aren’t being used but there are little glitches. The muscles aren’t firing in the correct order when we need them to when there’s the adrenaline, stress and everything that comes with roping live cattle.”
Why small muscles matter
Casey notes that it’s not the big muscle groups that generally cause an issue for ropers but the smaller, less thought of muscles that don’t kick in when needed.
“Those little muscles are way more important to your postural control,” Casey said. “What I found, and hear all the time, is people who are catching the dummy on the ground, but when they get on a horse, on live cattle or even on the sled, they can’t keep their horse in position and deliver a proper loop. It’s because their whole lower body is moving around and giving mixed cues to the horse. They don’t have that body control that is needed.”
A strong core is of paramount importance in breakaway roping and is taught by every clinician out there. Casey takes that necessity a step further, using her years of knowledge of how the human body functions.
“I was looking for something while roping on the ground that replicates the muscle use needed on a horse,” she said.
How to improve balance
Casey began employing a balance board as a means of allowing practice that engages the core while keeping a roper on her feet to mimic standing in her stirrups.
“It can be a cheap, homemade version with plywood on top,” she said but noted she’s recently discovered affordable versions on Amazon and through other retailers that provide the same workout.
In addition, she has advocated the use of Bosu balls, which come in half ball versions that are flat on the bottom and offer a rubberized texture to prevent slipping. A roper should place one foot on each ball with the right foot slightly forward.
“Regardless, I do recommend wearing tennis shoes for this exercise instead of boots because boots have slick bottoms,” Casey said.
In a nutshell, Casey breaks down the practice with a balance board this way.
- First, step onto the board and establish your position with slightly bent knees. She recommends placing the right foot slightly ahead of the left.
- Next, engage your core by pushing your toes down slightly. That activates your gluts, quads, and the muscles in your back to hold that position strong.
- Remember to breathe!
- Finally, swing your rope and throw, making sure your toes are forward toward the dummy.
Casey recommends starting with just three to five loops a day and gradually increasing your time on the board as your muscles are strengthened.
“If you do too much, you get sore,” Casey said. “Then you don’t stay motivated and if you do get on the board again, you’re probably not activating your muscles in the correct order because your body is trying to protect itself so your form is not correct.”
If you can’t rope while standing on the balance board or Bosu balls, Casey recommends going back to work to target the muscles separately. Bridges are a good start.
“For the most part, it’s not that our muscles aren’t strong enough,” she concludes. “It’s just that they don’t kick in the way we need them to when we apply stress or adrenaline or when we are in pain.”
About Jennifer Casey
Jennifer Casey has earned breakaway roping titles at every level including two NIRA Regional titles during her undergraduate work at Washington State, 18 regional rodeo year end titles and a pair of WPRA Columbia River Circuit championships.
Inspired by her lingering health issues following a barrier accident to become a physical therapist, Casey earned a doctorate as well as a post graduate certification in sensory integration, degrees she has used in an education setting and as a breakaway clinician for more than twenty years.
For more information on Casey’s coaching and physical therapy offerings, visit her website at jenniferlcasey.com.