The Jungle Fugitives/Throwing the Riata

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2279309The Jungle Fugitives — Throwing the RiataEdward S. Ellis


The skill shown by cattlemen in throwing the riata or lasso often approaches the marvelous. What is more wonderful than the duel described in the San Francisco Examiner, between Mexican vaqueros, in which the only weapons used were their riatas? The victor overcame the other by throwing his noose, so that his enemy's noose passed right through it, and the conqueror lassoed the other man's arms against his side and jerked him from his steed.

The despatch then went on to tell of the skill of the victorious riata man, and mentioned among other wonderful feats, his lassoing an antelope running at high speed 100 feet away. To make the test more extraordinary, the correspondent wrote that he would pick out one of the animal's feet and get the noose around that alone.

An Examiner reporter called on Louis Ohnimus, Superintendent of Woodward's Gardens, who wielded a riata for many years, and probably knows as much about throwing the lasso as any man on the coast, and asked him if the feats referred to were possible.

"The Mexican may have won the duel by lassoing his adversary, riata and all," was the answer. "It is not an uncommon thing for them to settle their differences by such a fight, and I have heard of the trick of ringing the other man's rope, but if that man can catch an antelope one hundred feet away, by the foot or any other way, he is a better riata man than I ever encountered. In the first place mighty few men are strong enough to throw a rope such a distance. Then an ordinary riata is only fourteen or sixteen yards long—twenty yards is a very long one. So, you see, a forty-foot throw is a pretty good one."

He was asked to explain how to throw a lasso, and consented to do so.

"The first thing about this business," said Mr. Ohnimus, "is to have a perfect riata. If you have one perfectly stretched, oiled, and in a thoroughly good condition, you can throw well; if your rope is kinky or uneven, you will find it impossible to do accurate work."

"What do you consider a good riata?"

"Well, I can only tell you how a good one is made. First, the rawhide is cut in thin strips, as long as possible, and half tanned with the hair on. Then these strips are soaked and stretched over a block. Then they are braided into a rope, care being taken, of course, to pull the strands as tight as possible. When the riata is made it should be buried for a week, ten days, or even a fortnight, in the sand. It takes up moisture from the ground, without getting hard. Soaking it in water won't do, nor will anything else that I know of except, as I say, burying it. When the riata is resurrected it should again be left for a time stretched over a block, with a weight to hold it taut. Then the hair should be sandpapered off the outside, and when the riata is greased with mutton tallow and properly noosed it is ready for use. Every vaquero that pretends to take care of his apparatus will bury his riata and stretch it every six or eight months.

"A hair rope does not make a good riata. It is useful to stretch around camp at night to keep snakes away. For some reason snakes will not cross a hair rope.

"Now, as to throwing it:

"The riata, say, is hanging from the horn of the saddle—not tied, but ready for use. No vaquero who understands his trade ties his rope to his saddle. He knows that his life may depend on his ability to let go of his rope in an instant, and he isn't going to chance killing himself or his horse. You see, the vaquero might be on a side hill, and a bull or steer he wishes to catch be on a trail below him, and the ground between them to be too steep to admit of his riding down to it. Now, suppose the noose, instead of catching around the horns of the steer, should circle his neck and draw down to his shoulders? Accidents are, of course, as likely to happen in catching cattle as in anything else, and give a bull such a hold and he could pull a house, let alone a mustang. That would be one case where it would be very handy to let go quickly. Then a man is likely to get his hand caught, and if he can't let his rope go free he is likely to lose a finger or two.

"Our vaquero is trotting along with his rope hanging at his saddle bow or fastened behind him. He sees a deer or whatever else he wants to catch, and grabs his rope with the left hand if he is a right-handed man, though a man to really excel in this business should be ambi-dextrous. A right-handed man can, under ordinary circumstances, rope a steer; but he has frequently to turn his horse to gain a good position. Now it sometimes happens that your horse is in a position where you can't turn; then it would be awkward, unless you could throw with either hand. I usually throw with my left hand, though I can use either.

"I take up the rope from the saddle bow, so."

He lifted his riata in his right hand. His little finger held the standing end of the rope, the third and middle finders supported the coil, and the noose dangled from his first finger, while his thumb steadied the whole rope and held it from slipping. The coils were not more than a foot or a foot and a half in diameter. The noose was the same size.

"That's a smaller noose than you would use on the range, is it not?"

"No," answered Mr. Ohnimus, "the vaquero never carries his noose long. If he did, it would be constantly getting tangled up in the horse's legs. He makes it larger when he swings it. But to get back to the process of lassoing. As our cowboy gets close to his quarry, he takes the noose in his lasso hand. I will use my left, as it is a trifle handier for me. He grips the rope, not too firmly, holding the standing part and the side of the noose about half the length of the loop away from the knot. That is to enable him to swing the noose so that it will fall open. If he holds it at the knot he will throw a long, narrow noose that is very likely to cross and kink.

"Meanwhile I, representing our cowboy, hold the remaining coils in my other hand, only changing the position of my forefinger so as to secure better control of the coils. Then comes the third maneuver—enlarging the noose. Of course, you have to have a larger noose than one a foot in diameter to drop over a steer's horns forty feet away. The noose is enlarged by swinging the noose in your lasso hand until the centrifugal force pulls it out the size you wish (this is the reason you do not grasp it too firmly), letting go with the other hand, of course, as many coils as are necessary to make the noose the right size. Now you have the noose in the air you do not cease making it circle around your head until you let it go. When the noose has been let out to the right size the next trouble is to keep it open and to avoid entangling it in the brush or other surrounding obstructions. You keep it open, as I said, by holding the noose from quarter to half its length from the knot, and by a peculiar twist of the wrist that is only attainable by practice. To keep it clear of the brush is often a more difficult job, for the cowboy is not always in a clear place when he wants to throw his rope. Then it is that his judgment comes into play and determines whether his cast is a lost one or not. I have seen vaqueros swing a lasso swiftly almost in the midst of a thicket, and keep it clear without losing speed, and then let it drive straight as an arrow between two close trees and rope an object that could not pass where the noose had gone. Such skill, to be sure, comes only after long practice.

"Well, now we have got the noose circling about the vaquero's head, and the next thing is to let it fly. There is not much to describe about this part of throwing a riata, important though it may be. It is only incessant practice that will enable a man to make a certain cast. The main thing is to swing the rope just long enough—neither so long as to give it a side-wise motion when you throw it, nor short enough to prevent its getting all the force you require. Then the riata man must throw at a particular limb or projection. This thing of tossing blindly at an object and trusting to luck that the animal will get into the rope somehow will not do. You must pick out your mark as carefully as if you were shooting at it, and then time it. A steer jumping along changes his position constantly as regards you. If you throw at his head high up the chances are that it will be away down when your rope reaches him, and you will overthrow. Now, if you pick out a foot you must reckon so that that foot will be off the ground when your rope reaches him. The noose does not travel like a bullet, and this element of time is most important.

"Of even more importance is it that the distances are gauged correctly. You remember I spoke about holding the coils lightly in two or three fingers. Well, that is done in order that as many coils as may be considered necessary may be let go. If you are wielding a riata you know that each of your coils is almost two feet or two and one half feet long. So if you want to lasso something twenty feet away you let go ten coils.

"As to letting go, you simply open your hand at the correct time and the rope slips off.

"But even after you have roped your steer your work is not over. Almost any animal can pull you from your horse, and to prevent this you must get your rope around the horn of your saddle. There is where you have to be quick. There are two ways of making this hitch that are used ordinarily. The one I prefer is simply to take two turns around the horn, taking care that the second turn comes lower and overlaps the other. No pull in the world could make that rope slip, while I can, simply by throwing off one turn, let it all slide off. This other fashion, which is really taking a 'half-inch' around the horn, holds just as fast, but you have to push the rope through to loosen it. You see, in making this sudden twist, a finger is very likely to get caught, and I have known many fingers being taken off before such a hitch could be unfastened.

"It is often advisable to take an extra twist around anything you have lassoed, and this is done by simply throwing a coil. Practice again is the only thing that can teach this.

"Now you have the whole theory of throwing a rope.

"There are four sorts of throws, but they are all made alike, only the position of the arm being different. They are the overthrow, the underthrow, the sidethrow, and the backthrow."


"Yes, backthrow—catching an object behind you—something that you need not even see. That sounds difficult, does it? Well, you stand behind me and you can see it done."

The reporter took his station twenty feet behind Mr. Ohnimus, quite out of sight, of course. He swung the loop around his head, and, without turning, let it fly backward. It circled the newspaper man exactly, and by pulling it quickly Ohnimus had his arms pinioned to his side.

"Are there any more trick throws?" asked the reporter.

"Lots of them. I never put myself up as a crack riata man, and I am out of practice now, but I can lay the noose on the ground at my feet and kick it around your neck, or pick it off the ground from my horse and land it around you while the horse is going at full speed, and do lots of things like that, but none of them is any good. That backthrow has been used by the Mexican highwaymen to considerable advantage. You see, in that country the traveler always looks out for danger from the rear and is prepared for it, but when a pleasant horseman rides past him, playing with his riata, and wishing him 'Good-day' as he passes, he is likely to consider the danger as gone by, as well as the man. That has caused the death of a good many. The bandit gets the right distance ahead and then lassoes him as I did you. A touch of his spur jerks his victim from the saddle and that ends it."

"How is the lasso as a weapon of defence?"

"Good. A quick riata man can beat a fellow with a pistol at fairly close quarters."


"Well, here is a pistol. Put it in your pocket and draw it on me as I come toward you."

The reporter did as he was directed. He had not raised the weapon when the noose was around his hand and the pistol was jerked a dozen feet.

"Try again, and tighter," said Ohnimus.

The reporter did so. The pistol was not jerked from his hand this time, but before he could snap it Ohnimus had thrown a coil around his neck and pulled his pistol hand up over his shoulder. In another instant a second coil was around the reporter's body, and both arms were fastened firmly to his sides. He could not move that pistol an inch. No clearer demonstration of the use of the lasso as a weapon of defence was possible.

"What is the most difficult animal, in your opinion, to catch with the lasso?" was asked.

"A sea lion," answered the rope thrower. "I have caught them off the southern coast. They go right through a noose. The only way to get them is to throw the rope around his neck and back of one flipper. A hog is hard to catch, too. He pulls his legs out of a noose without half trying, and you can't hold him by the neck or body. The only way is to get him like the sea lion—back of one foreleg."