Saddle Symmetry

Lesson Plan


After viewing and discussing James Walker’s Cowboys Roping a Bear, students will explore symmetry with their bodies and then create their own symmetrical drawings in pairs.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 55 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • define composition and symmetry;
  • use their bodies to demonstrate an understanding of symmetry; and
  • work collaboratively to create works of art.


  1. Warm-up: Have students choose a partner to engage with in a mirroring exercise. Have partners stand across from each other, toe to toe. One partner will be the leader and start doing simple movements with one of their hands. The other partner should follow the movements with their own hand, becoming the mirrored image of their partner. Switch roles.
  2. Show students Cowboys Roping a Bear. After giving them at least a minute to look at the painting, ask students to discuss what’s going on in the painting. Here are some questions to get the discussion going:
    • What do you see?
    • Who are the people?
    • What are they wearing?
    • What are they doing?
    • Are they working together or competing with each other? How do you know?
  3. Tell students you are now going to talk about composition, or how a painting is arranged. Ask students if anyone knows what the term symmetry means. Define symmetry as when you can divide a picture in half so that it is the same on both sides. If this is a new concept for your students, show them some easy examples such as a butterfly or circle.
  4. Revisit the painting and ask students to find different aspects that are symmetrical, or the same on both sides. One example is the number of riders on each side of the bear’s body. Encourage students to discover more complex examples, such as the way in which each rider’s pose mimics that of the rider opposite him. For example, the two vaqueros getting ready to throw their lassos are opposite each other, both leaning toward the bear. Color is also mirrored, this time left and right, as seen in the two riders wearing white shirts on white horses.
  5. To really demonstrate how the painting is symmetrical, ask for seven volunteers to come to the front of the class to create a tableau of the painting. A tableau is a classroom exercise where students recreate a painting with their bodies. Arrange six chairs in a circle to serve as horses. Have one student be the bear and the others take the postures of the vaqueros. Instruct them to look closely at the painting and pay careful attention to how each individual rider is sitting. Have the students work with the rider opposite them to make sure they are mirroring each other as seen in the painting.
  6. After giving the volunteers time to assume their positions, invite the rest of the class to make corrections to the tableau.
  7. Have students create symmetrical drawings in pairs. Give two sheets of white paper to each pair of students and instruct them to fold the paper in half to make a crease down the middle. Students will take turns being the leader and will make a mark on one side of the paper. The other student will mimic the leader’s marks on the other side of the paper. Younger students could do this by drawing simple geometric shapes. Older students could take on the challenge of drawing a scene with figures in a setting.
  8. Display the artworks for everyone to see!


  • White paper and drawing tools (pencils, crayons, etc.)
  • About the Art section on Cowboys Roping a Bear
  • One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Optional: Examples of symmetrical objects (e.g. shapes, butterflies, etc.)


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Cowboys Roping a Bear

Cowboys Roping a Bear

About 1877

James Walker, United States

Who Made It?

James Walker was born in England in 1818 and moved to New York with his parents when he was a child. He lived in New York for most of his life, traveling frequently in the United States and to Mexico. He was living in Mexico City in 1846 when the Mexican War broke out. He was forced into hiding for six weeks before being able to get behind United States lines. In addition to painting scenes of the war, he was fluent in Spanish and served as an interpreter for United States troops. In the 1870s, he moved to California and was captivated by California’s romantic Mexican past. He established a studio in San Francisco, where this painting was probably made.

What Inspired It?

After moving to California, Walker often visited the ranches of his Spanish-speaking friends. This painting was probably made after a trip to a ranch near San Diego. During his visits, Walker became fascinated with the life and culture of the vaqueros [vah-CARE-ohs]—the Spanish cow and ranch hands. In this painting, the men are not roping the bear merely for amusement. In the early 1800s, grizzly bears were one of the biggest threats to cattle. While the Anglo-American style was to use heavy artillery to control threatening bears, the vaqueros preferred to rope them from the back of a well-trained horse. This method of bear control required a great deal of skill and was a dying vaquero art.


Vaquero Attire
Vaquero Attire

Vaqueros outfitted themselves in dashing yet functional dress, and Walker shows all the details:

  • Wide-brimmed hats with flat tops gave protection from the sun.
  • Thin leather jackets, similar to today’s jean jackets, were often decorated with silver. They were tough yet light and protected against thorns and bug bites.
  • Leather pants had buttons down the legs that could be buttoned or unbuttoned according to the weather.
  • Botas [BOW-tahz], leather leg wraps, were worn for extra protection against cactuses and snakes.
  • Colorful woven blankets, called serapes [sehr-AH-pehs], were rolled up and carried behind the saddles.

Most vaqueros made their own reatas [ray-AH-tahs], or ropes, by braiding four to eight strands of rawhide together. Most reatas were about 60 feet long.

The Lasso
The Lasso

The lasso is a long rope with a loop at one end that, once the rope has been accurately thrown, tightens securely around the target. It was a tricky maneuver—a vaquero used a special technique to toss the rope and quickly drape one end of it around the saddle horn, or handgrip. If he did not drape the rope around the saddle horn before the animal pulled the rope taut, the vaquero could injure a hand, even losing a finger or two between the rope and saddle horn.

The Bear
The Bear

At one time California supported the greatest number of grizzly bears in North America, but they became locally extinct by 1908. The decline of the California grizzly began during the Spanish Colonial period. At first, the bear population increased as free-ranging cattle provided an easy food source, but their numbers dropped with the increase in human settlement and the killing of grizzlies by cattlemen. Grizzlies were often captured for sport by vaqueros using only horses and ropes.

Mirror Images
Mirror Images

Walker balanced the figures in this painting by pairing each rider’s pose with the rider opposite him. For example, the two vaqueros getting ready to throw their lassos are opposite each other in similar poses. Color is also mirrored, this time left and right, as seen in the two riders wearing white shirts on white horses.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.