Roping a steer with a simple loop is a lot like throwing a strike in baseball. The differences are that in roping, the pitching mound gallops and home plate has a tendency toward broken-field running. Roping a steer with a figure-eight loop is only slightly more complicated—just imagine pitching a strike from the saddle while conducting "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with the same hand.
Apart from the cheering, an accurately thrown figure eight will bring a roper a modest cash reward and major bragging rights at a small, locals-only rodeo in central California. Throwing a figure-eight loop that immobilizes a steer with a single, twisted loop—the top part settling around a steer's neck just as the rope crosses itself to form a bottom loop for the animal to step into—is a skill so specialized that it is contested in only one place, the San Benito County Saddle Horse Show and Rodeo, an amateur three-day affair held every June at Bolado Park, outside of Hollister, Calif.
For most of the rodeo's 60 years the figure-eight roping contest, which takes place amid the usual saddle-bronc and bull riding, the team roping, the wild-cow milking event and the pony-express and wild-horse races, was a show put on by a few old-timers who wanted to keep alive a skill developed some 150 years ago by the vaqueros, California's first cowboys. The figure eight almost died out along with its aging practitioners until the event was endowed with prize money a few years ago. Now younger cowboys have found a knack for throwing the double loop, and it has become one of the toughest contests of the weekend.
In competition, catching a steer's head and its two front feet is considered a full figure eight and is worth 11 points. The head and one front foot is worth five points. "There was a time when a full and a half would have won this thing," says three-time champion John Hubbell, 43, whose 16 points this year left him in filth place and out of the money. The new maestro of the figure eight is Pat Abercrombie, a 36-year-old ranch hand who came in third in the wild-cow milking contest and fourth in the team roping event. Abercrombie threw an astounding four and a half figure eights in his six tries, demolishing his competition and the record for points, with a total of 49. Along with his first San Benito County Rodeo silver buckle, he won $500, the top cash prize awarded at the show.
Explaining how to throw a figure eight is about as difficult as actually throwing one and requires supporting body language. "You need a calm horse, and the steer has to be in the right position—almost in front of you," says Abercrombie. "You don't want to get too close to the steer so the rope has room to fold over." With his right wrist twisting circles in the air, he adds, "Just as you release the rope, you roll your wrist over. If you get everything right, the steer will step right into the bottom loop."
Abercrombie, who spends his days herding cattle and mending fences and his nights shoeing horses in Hollister to help support his wife and four kids, actually has occasion to use the figure eight on the job. When he finds himself in situations the vaqueros often found themselves in—alone in the live oak-studded hills and needing to doctor a sick cow—he uses the double loop to bring down a cow without the help of a heeler, a second roper who catches the animal's heels. In fact, Abercrombie throws the figure eight so often, he sees it in his sleep. "I actually have nightmares," he says. "In my sleep the loop never catches."
He has no such problem in his waking hours. This year Abercrombie threw closer to perfection than anyone ever has in this obscure event. As he received congratulations afterward, it was clear that a local sort of deification was under way. "Pat's a sure enough cowboy," said one admirer. "The prettiest loops I've ever seen," said another. "I once saw him figure-eight a fence post," said a third. A fourth opined that Abercrombie "could make a hay bale walk."
How many baseball pitchers can do that?