In Fareed Miran's dusty riding arena, on a farm in an area of Virginia known for fox hunting and other genteel equestrian pursuits, the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of a rope whipping through the air was the sound of a cowboy.
Miran, 33, was on a caramel-colored horse, chasing a steer, a lasso spinning high above his wide-brimmed hat. Ahead of him, his partner, Dickie Kirk, urged his own horse on until he was close enough to toss his rope around the steer's horns and pull it taut. Miran drew up behind and cast a fine little loop that snared the steer's hind legs.
Just like that, the steer was caught and the run was over. Nine seconds maybe, 11 tops.
On the plains of Texas or Oklahoma, it would be commonplace to see riders practicing team roping, a rough-and-tumble sport that has its origins on ranches where such skills are needed to catch cattle for branding or doctoring. But in Aldie, just south of Leesburg, Miran is something of an anomaly.
Miran, who was born in Afghanistan and moved to Arlington with his family in 1977, doesn't much go for the more polished horse sports favored by many of his neighbors. He prefers the intensity of roping. "I guess every little boy wants to be a cowboy," he said.
These days, however, roping isn't reserved for cowboys. When he's not on the road competing, Miran spends much of his time on his 100-acre farm, a family operation also run by his wife and his mother, teaching novices and families to rope for fun. This summer, he held a weeklong camp for children 6 through 13, training them to rope an ersatz steer's head attached to a bale of hay before they tried the roping on horseback.
Team roping is no longer the stock solely of rodeos. It is an increasingly competitive sport -- prizes can include saddles and thousands of dollars in cash -- that requires close cooperation and timing among riders.
"You rope with your right hand, you win with your left hand" is their mantra, because the left hand guides the horse as it accelerates from zero to 30 mph in about three strides.
At Miran's farm, the Mexican cattle and Texas longhorns have been conditioned to do their part with the help of two dogs, Tequila and Diesel, who nip at the steers' hooves until they cross the arena at the beginning of each practice session.
During a session last week, the cattle were lined up like tin soldiers in a narrow, mechanized chute, the first steer in a cell separated from the others. When "Homer the Chute Man" -- Miran's friend, former sheriff's deputy Homer Hubbard -- pressed a remote control, the gate opened and the lead steer took off, sprinting for a holding area at the other end of the arena, where a 100-gallon water trough awaited it.
Kirk, the "header" in the team, charged out front, roped the steer's horns and wrapped his end of the rope around his saddle horn to secure the animal. Miran, the "heeler," following close behind, made a trap with his loop near the steer's hind legs, roped them and tied his end of the rope around his saddle horn. The clock didn't stop until both ropes were taut and both horses were facing the steer. Runs usually last 15 seconds or less; Miran's personal best is 4.9 seconds.
"There's not a lot of time to enjoy it, but it is exhilarating," said Jackson Taylor, 35, a technology consultant and one of Miran's students.
What Taylor and other riders find exhilarating, animal rights groups find despicable. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups have sought to have roping banned, arguing that it is inhumane. They say cattle routinely have their necks snapped back by the lasso, often resulting in neck injuries and sometimes death.
Ropers say they aim for the horns, which are covered by nylon and cotton wraps to prevent rope burn. Roping the neck is legal but not preferred, partly because riders have more control of the steer with its horns and partly because riders say they don't want to harm the animal. Each steer costs about $500, Miran points out. "You can't afford to hurt one [or] lose one," he said.
Miran, who has the husky frame of the Loudoun County High School football player he once was, took up roping after he visited Texas in the mid-1990s and saw ropers at a Fort Worth stockyard. He had spent part of his childhood on his grandfather's farm in Kabul, and his father, after settling in Arlington, moved the family to Aldie in 1984 because he, too, wanted a farm.
After Miran returned from Texas, he took lessons from a friend of his father's, then largely taught himself, watching videotapes of competitions to see how others did it, roping the fake steer head, training his horses to follow a donkey -- which, given its slow speed, was easier to rope -- before graduating to a real steer.
After a particularly good weekend of competition, he took home $10,000. But he loses money, too: The entry fee for each run can be as high as $100, and he recently made 16 runs in a single competition.
Riders are also the beneficiaries of bumps, bruises and sometimes worse. In 1998, Miran was roping on his farm when a horse tripped and fell on him. His left arm snapped behind his back. "I looked around and didn't see my arm," Miran said. He needed nine operations to repair a broken bone. And a couple of months ago at a competition in Richmond, Miran's rope caught on his spur. He fell off the horse, which then bolted and dragged him for 50 yards.
Len Smith, 29, a software engineer and one of Miran's students, was sitting out an evening's practice this month, having hurt his knee. One recent evening, Smith spent most of his time ushering the steers into the chute. Every few minutes, Miran and Kirk would prepare for the run, Diesel and Tequila would watch from the sidelines, Homer the Chute Man would press the button and the chase would be on again.