With a flick of his stirrups, Coltin Cox bolts out of the gate atop his white horse, wielding a looped rope and aiming for the horns of a bucking steer. As soon as Coltin manages to coil the rope around the steer’s horns, his grandfather rides from behind to secure his rope on the steer’s hind hoofs.
Coltin grinned as he and his grandfather skirted the arena and released their grip on the ropes attached to the animal. At ages 13 and 63, they make a good team.
“It’s pretty exciting to have my grandson roping now,” Jimmy Costanzo, Coltin’s grandfather, said. “Makes it all worth it.”
As often as the weather permits, Coltin and his father, Josh Cox, of Carroll Township, truck their horses from the farm of Josh’s father in Monongahela to Costanzo’s arena in Hickory. The family reunion also includes a few close friends committed to the sport, which involves two teammates, the header and the heeler, on horseback.
Roping originated in the western U.S. during the early 19th century as a method for catching pastured cattle. While a majority of the tournaments are hosted in the nation’s Midwest and Southwest, a local team roping competition is annually held at the Washington County Fair.
In competition, the header is in charge of throwing a rope around the horns of the steer, while the heeler aims for the steer’s hind hoofs. To protect from rope burn, the steers wear headgear. As soon as the steer barrels out of a metal chute, the ropers are timed to see how fast they can secure the animal’s horns and hoofs.
Costanzo competes year-round and engages in all levels of competition, from a backyard match in Ohio to the Eastern Regional Finals U.S. Team Roping Championships in Tennessee.
The almost 25-year veteran roper came a long way from his suburban upbringing in Green Tree.
“This was always my dream as a little kid,” Costanzo said. “It was tough coming here from the city.”
He purchased a sprawling patch of green farmland dotted with a pond 18 years ago to pursue his hobby of roping.
“I started when I was 40. I didn’t ride or rope – and I was left-handed,” he said, chuckling at his limited experience.
Coltin roped for five years before he entered his first competition this summer.
“I did pretty good actually,” Coltin said, recalling some precompetition jitters. “Way better than I thought I was going to do.”
When Coltin, a rising seventh-grader at Ringgold Middle School, tells his friends about his sport, he receives mixed reactions.
“A lot of people don’t like it but…” Coltin said.
“A lot of people don’t understand it.” Josh, 36, said, completing his son’s sentence.
During practice, Josh critiqued his son. He explained that Coltin had great control over his horse, but didn’t maintain a fast enough rope speed needed to secure steer’s horns.
Similar to his son, Josh, a self-employed equine dentist, picked up the reins at 4 years old. He understands the multitasking involved in team roping.
Josh rode bulls in high school but decided to focus on team roping post-graduation, because he considered it a much safer sport.
“It’s really rewarding to tie it all together, to get the horses to do what you want, to get the cow to do what you want,” he said. “If you think about it, there are five brains going. You’ve got two horses, a steer, two people – all have a different brain and all want to do something else. When it comes together it’s just perfect.”
While the family’s dedication to the sport is evident from their frequent backyard workouts, the jokes and friendly exchanges of advice between practice sets are the highlight of the evening.
“You come over, sometimes there’ll be pizza, sometimes there’ll be hamburgers,” Josh said, describing their post-practice family dinners. “Tonight it’s soup.”