Caught in the Crossfire

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The history of the crossfire rule (first examined by Denny Gentry in the June 2004 issue of Spin To Win Rodeo) has no single root cause, but several important events that lead to its establishment. In the early 1970s, 11-year-old Sterling Price and 12-year-old Wes Smith beat the PRCA ropers at the then-ultimately prestigious OS Ranch Roping by crossfiring. Frank Matthews, Mike Beers and Rickey Green are also often cited as the reasons the crossfire rule was implemented.

Gentry defined a true crossfire when, "The header widens to rope the horns, while the heeler falls in directly behind the steer. When the header bends the steer's head the heeler ropes the feet, and the header kind of runs by the steer. The amount and ferocity of the yank on the steer depends on how wide the header roped or how wide he became after he roped." A crossfire, today, is more commonly thought of as a perfectly timed shot as the steer swings through the switch.

Dick Yates was the team roping director when the rule was changed. Despite his son, J.D., being one of the few ropers who could crossfire consistently, the elder Yates felt the rule needed to be implemented for the sake of solid horsemanship and fundamental roping skills.

In the late 1990s, PRCA Pro Official Tommy Keith flagged out Mike Beers on a crossfire call that might have cost he and his partner Matt Tyler the average and world titles. Over the years, Bob Feist has called for a suspension of the crossfire rule at the NFR. More recently, in 2004 the USTRC did away with the crossfire rule.

We thought you might enjoy a quick look at the actual crossfire rules as written by the respective associations, along with an insider's interpretation of them in layman's terms.

The PRCA
From the Rulebook
"The direction of the steer's body must be changed before the heel loop can be thrown. However, if the steer stops, it must only be moving forward for the heel loop to be legal. Any heel loop thrown before the completion of the initial switch will be considered a crossfire and no time will be recorded.

Illegal Heel Catches: Heeler throws loop before header ropes, dallies and changes direction of the steer. "A team should not be flagged out when heeler crossfires because they may still have a legal loop coming in a three-head contest. A flag should be given when contestant has completed the run, then flagged out for crossfiring using same procedure as a team having an illegal head catch."

Tommy Keith, now Supervisor of Pro Officials for the PRCA, interprets the rule this way:

The header's rope has to come tight and he has to change that steer's direction before the heeler can throw the heel loop. Another scenario is if the steer stops. All the header has to do is get him moving forward-doesn't matter what direction-before the loop is thrown.

When that header takes control of that steer and he starts him on that switch, that steer's hind legs could actually hit once, twice, or three times before the completion of the initial switch. Anytime that heel rope gets there prior to the completion of the initial switch and they rope him and turn and dally, straighten, tight and ask for a time, they'll be flagged for crossfire.

It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if the steer is pulled into the loop, the initial switch is complete. If he swings into the loop, once you see that initial switch start, it's a crossfire. It's a real fine line.

If you have good cattle that leave and run, you don't have a crossfire. If you do, it's so flagrant that nobody questions your call.

We've got to be careful now because our short scores create a problem, but the fans love everything fast and quick.

What happens is the heeler's right on top of the steer as soon as he leaves because the heeler doesn't have to stay behind a barrier. He can jump right out there to the steer's right horn and crash him left. When that happens, and the header runs out of room in that corner and doesn't have the opportunity to change that steer's direction quite as well, the calls start coming in and that's when they put all the responsibility in the flagger's hand. They take their shot and leave him to decide whether it's legal or not. And we all know they dang sure don't agree with every call that's made. I think they know when they crossfire, they're good. They're good at what they do, and sometimes they want to know if you know.

If you put the score out there too long and the heeler isn't behind a barrier, they'll get out there early and get over to the right shoulder of that steer and get to driving them left and that's when it changes the course of the cattle and the cattle start giving it up a little quicker. If it's too short, you can create problems, if it's too long you can create the same problems for the crossfire call. If we can get the barrier set based on the condition of the cattle, we usually don't have any problems.

It's more of a team effort, because the roper has to rope him and handle that steer in a way the heeler can rope him. It's team roping. The header has to do a good job to put that steer in a position to rope him.

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USTRC
From the Rulebook

"The header must have control of the steer's head and the steer's head must be bent before the heeler can legally deliver his or her rope. In other words, the heeler may rope the steer in the switch, but not before. Any heel loop delivered before the switch is considered a crossfire and illegal. In the instance where a steer sets up, at no fault of the roper, the heel loop can be thrown at any time once the header has control of the steer."

Kirk Bray, USTRC President, cites these reasons for eliminating the rule:

When the crossfire rule was first put in way, way back there were no heel barriers, for one. Ropers could rope them going down the pen, actually. They put it in to protect the integrity of the sport, to keep those heelers from roping steers going down the pen, and pushing the cattle to the left all the time.

I think the sport has gone through a whole lot of changes since then. Anytime that you flag a team out for crossfire, it's a no-win situation-especially because of the way the rule was written. Is that steer in tow or is he not in tow? Is he in the switch is he not in the switch? It's a lot easier for a flagger to tell if the steer has switched or not, it's very difficult for a lot of flaggers to tell if that steer was actually in tow. I think that the rule is kind of ridiculous that the steer has to be in tow. We don't tell a header when he can throw his rope and we don't tell a calf roper that he has to get off the left, he can get off whatever side he wants. It's a speed sport, so as long as the integrity of the sport stays in tact, let those guys throw it.

The way our rule reads is that the header has to be in control of the steer and the steer's head has to be bent, which means the steer has to be going across the arena. If that header has control of that steer-and to me that's what the integrity part of it is about-then he should be legal. It's such a low-percentage throw, that you don't really see a lot of the pros taking that shot. In the beginning, there were a lot more ropers that took that throw than do now, but they just figured it out, it's a low-percentage throw. Also, I've noticed that those guys can not be faster throwing it in the switch, it takes too long for that steer to clear and they're sitting there with their hand held up waiting for the slack to be taken out by their header. If they let that steer come around the corner and be moving away from them-versus roping coming to him-they can be faster.

We just came back from San Antonio, and we had 3,800 teams, almost 7,000 cattle run. I maybe saw one heeler try to make that throw in the switch. You're going to see it when they're out of the average or trying to make up time as the 20th call back, but to me it hasn't affected our events in any way. Anytime you flag somebody out for crossfire, everybody immediately forms their own opinion, and you never can win that argument. So as far as I'm concerned, it has eliminated a lot of controversy.

It's a speed sport. If those guys are behind a heel barrier and not pushing steers left, it seems to me that if the header is in control of him, he should be legal to rope. We tried to clean it up to take all the guessing out of it.

The World Series of Team Roping
From the Rulebook:

Cross Fire will not be permitted. Animals must be in tow before the heel rope is released.

Denny Gentry, founder of the both the USTRC and WSTR, has this to say:

Originally in the early 1990s, high shape was the deal at the rodeos and there were no heeling barriers at the rodeos. The heelers were all standing at the front of the box, then they'd leave with the steer and push him toward the left fence and then have him halfway turned before the guy's loop went on him. It would make the switch happen quicker and they could just pop him.

Everybody else started doing it and it ruined the cattle. We didn't have any choice but to use the heeling barrier. They figured it was better for them to get at the back of the box and get a run at them, so that solved the issue of hazing cattle. Now with softer barriers and softer cattle, guys can get up there and get in position faster.

In 1990 at the USTRC, I decided to make the rule fit the majority of the situations, and the majority of ropers. We felt it was in the best interest of long average roping, horsemanship and the sport to gear our rule to recreational ropers and away from crossfire and the pros. Therefore, we decided the steers had to be turned and in-tow before heelers could release their ropes.

For the World Series, I use the same rule that was in place at the USTRC for 12 years, which has since changed. Technically it's not a new policy, it's the same old policy. What we did with the No-Barrier system is put the eyes in the back of the box so that heelers have to get to the back end of the box for the gate to open. There's no way he can cheat up, so it's the same as the heeling barrier.

ACTRA
From the Rulebook:

The steer must be controlled by the header and complete the switch before the heel loop may be thrown. If a steer stops at no fault of the roper, he must be in tow before the heel loop may be thrown. Any loop thrown in the first switch is considered a crossfire and is illegal.

Clyde Saunders, the current President at ACTRA, had this to say:

What ours basically says is that everything has to change direction and be in tow. What it honestly means to most guys at ropings is that the steer has to be in the turn and started forward before the heeler can let go of his rope. I think of your local jackpot. The way most of us were taught for years and years is that the steer has to be in tow and started forward before your rope can leave your hand.

The crossfire rule was in place before I started roping, and I'm old. The reason they did this is to keep guys from roping steers before they even get the head rope on them. It's to keep the purity in the sport and create all-flowing action and give everybody the same opportunity.

At our National Finals, we've had a heel barrier and we've not had a heel barrier. Honestly, it depends on what kind of cattle we have. We run a pretty short score, so if you don't have a heel barrier, after two days into the roping everything is going left. It depends on the environment and the type of cattle we have. We don't dictate it with a rule, we let the conditions dictate what we do. If a heel barrier is warranted, then we use it. If it's not, we don't.