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From Hocking to Roping

A rope thrown from horseback and the branding of cattle are familiar practices to any fan of the old west. Roping as we know it was predated, however, by other techniques used to catch and control the ornery beeves dating back to 16th century Mexico and the early days of the Vaqueros.

According to Frazier (see reference at the end of the article), cattle were introduced into central Mexico in 1521. They quickly multiplied in number, many free-ranging and wild. They soon became so numerous that cattle were valued less for their meat and more for their hides. The hides were used for saddles, ore bags, shoes and other articles of clothing, and the demand for hides was especially high in Spain. Also valued over the meat was tallow, a common lubricant for wagon wheels and additionally used in cooking and making candles.

It can quickly be appreciated that getting the hides to a market did not require taking the rest of the animal along. Firearms at the time were unreliable and, along with other weapons, would damage the hide. Hocking became the accepted method for dropping cattle to take their hides. The hocking knife was a half-moon shaped blade, six or seven inches in length, mounted on an 8-10 foot pole that a horseman would use to ride up behind a steer and cut a rear foot tendon. The animal would fall and be unable to get up and the rider would move on to another. Later, the hocked cattle lying on the prairie would be killed and skinned and the meat left for vultures and other range predators.

Frazier noted that hocking was so efficient that large herds of cattle were drastically reduced, and stock raisers became concerned about a possible shortage of breeding stock. In 1574, hocking was banned by the colonial cattle associations forming the Mexican Mesta that had been established in 1537 to regulate ranching affairs and livestock in Mexico. The hocking knife was initially replaced by a rope, not thrown, but attached in a loop at the end of a pole and dropped over the horns of cattle by herders on horseback.

Dary (see reference below) described several problems with the rope loop on a pole. Besides being difficult to use, there was no good way to anchor the rope once the rider had the rope loop over the animal’s head. The sheer strength of the rider could not usually subdue a steer and the Spanish saddle used by Vaqueros at the time had no horn. At first, the rider tied the rope around his horse’s tail, still awkward—and not too easy on the horse, either.

The Spanish saddle had to undergo drastic design changes before the rider could effectively use the rope. First needed was a saddle horn to which the rider could tie the rope after dropping the rope loop over the animal’s head. Secondly, the saddle itself needed to be strengthened so that it would not break with a steer dragging the rider and saddle with the rope over its head still attached to the saddle horn.

With improvements in the saddle, it soon became evident to the Vaqueros that if they could throw the rope over a steer’s head, the animal could be captured more safely and accurately and from a greater distance. To throw the rope, however, it needed to be stronger and more flexible. More importantly, the rope needed to be longer than the rope of the day that was then made by braiding strips of cowhide cut from the length of the steer. To get a longer rope, the technique was developed of pulling strips of rawhide from the animal in a spiral direction to get the desired length.

Frazier reports that the first documented report of a Vaquero roping from the saddle occurred in Mexico in 1634, even though it was likely that the technique had been practiced before that. The first documentation of horseback roping in Texas was in 1767 near San Antonio.

About the same time that improvements were being made in saddles and ropes, branding became more prevalent. The Mesta had begun the licensing and regulation of brands shortly after cattle had been brought into Mexico, but hide buyers were not that interested in who owned the hide of a steer. Branding also left undesirable marks on the hide. The banning of hocking, the increasing value of meat and the need to herd cattle to meat markets now made branding important for proving ownership.

It was not long before Vaqueros perfected many roping techniques including those for lassoing the hind legs of cattle to drop them safely for branding. By the Civil War, roping as we usually think of it had been in widespread use. After the Civil War and with the sharp rise in the demand and value of cattle for its meat in the north, those roping skills were ably used by drovers in the Texas cattle drives to meet that demand by bringing the herds to the railheads in Kansas.

Note: This story was published in the The Cowboy Chronicle September 2011, pages 46-47.

References used in story:

  • Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries by David Dary, University of Kansas Press, 1989.
  • “How Roping Came To Be” by D. L. Frazier, Cowboy Magazine, Spring 2004, p. 16.