What is a Lariat?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

In the world of cattle ranching, a lariat is a length of braided leather rope used to wrangle or capture livestock, generally by forming a loop and snaring the animal's legs or head. A typical lariat used by working cowboys on a cattle ranch would be between 40 to 50 feet (12.2 to 15.2 m) in total length, and would have a metal eyelet or braided loop on one end in order for the user to create a slip knot or sliding noose. A lariat is often used in rodeo competitions to snare sheep or young cattle released from special pens into a ring.

A lariat is the rope used by a cowboy to lasso an animal.
A lariat is the rope used by a cowboy to lasso an animal.

The word lariat is actually an American corruption of the Spanish la reata, meaning "the rope." American cowboys misinterpreted the original Spanish phrase, converting it to the singular lariata and finally to lariat. Although the words lariat and lasso can be used interchangeably to describe a coiled rope, lariat is generally considered a noun and lasso is used as a verb. A cowboy would not use a lasso to secure his horse; he would use a lariat to lasso the animal.

A traditional lariat is carefully braided from long thin strips of conditioned leather through a labor intensive process. A lariat maker skillfully attaches new sections of leather to the rope until it reaches the desired length. A ranch hand or cowboy coils the rope and attaches it to the saddle on his dominant throwing side. In order to snare an errant animal, the cowboy forms a large loop of rope and throws it just ahead of the target's forelegs. The animal should step into the loop and become entangled as the slip knot or noose tightens.

A lariat can also be used for various rope tricks, such as a spinning loop which travels the length of the cowboy's body. A skilled lariat handler can also jump through a large loop of spinning rope or snare small moving targets from a distance or on horseback. Some performers can use a traditional lariat for stunt work, but others use specially modified lariats for their routines.

There is also a style of jewelry known as a lariat necklace. A lariat necklace is a long length of chain worn loosely around the neck or closed with a special clasp that creates a bolo tie or lasso loop appearance. The two ends of a lariat necklace are designed to hang freely from the wearer's neck, much like a lariat's loop.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Every summer we take our kids to at least one rodeo. Most people look forward to the bull riding, but I always enjoy watching the team roping.

Sometimes not one contestant can get the lariat rope around the calf's head and legs the entire night. I have never used a lariat rope, but this looks like it takes a lot of timing and precision to get it right.

I can understand how important it would be to be skilled with a lariat rope if you worked on a cattle ranch. One of my friends is going to a dude ranch for her birthday, and she says she always goes the week they bring the cattle down from the higher ground.

She doesn't use a rope to help with this, but says that she has seen the ranchers use their lariat ropes a lot with the cattle.


Becoming a good lariat roper takes hours and hours of practice. When we had horses, there was always a lariat rope laying around the barn. I never worked at it enough to be very good at it and gave up much too quickly.

My moving targets were probably glad that I wasn't very good and didn't pursue this for very long at one time.

I love to go to rodeos and watch people who are good with a lariat rope. I am always amazed at those who can swing that rope and catch the cows by the back of their feet.

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