Roping muleys was common when I was a kid. My dad and his fellow old-school cowboy friends the likes of Junior Muzio and Jim Wheatley liked hornless cattle for multiple reasons. They were most cost-effective, in that you didn’t take the hit you do when selling horned cattle. Men like my dad, Junior and Jim also saw great value in dairy-bred muleys—Holsteins, Jerseys and crosses—in horse-training terms, especially young ones that benefitted so much from low-pressure runs. I just heard they’ll be roping walking-fresh muleys at the Clovis (California) Rodeo in a couple weeks. So naturally, I was curious to know more.

“We decided to try muleys this year for economic reasons, basically because we weren’t sure until very recently that we were going to be able to even have a rodeo, due to COVID restrictions,” said Clovis Rodeo Arena Director Vince Genco, who’s served on the rodeo’s board of directors since 1983. “We had muley Mexican beef cattle available to us, which meant no one had to go out and buy them, and take the financial risk that burned some people last year.”

Yes, imagine the poor people who bought team roping and bulldogging steers to provide to rodeo committees, only to have the entire 2020 California spring run cancelled. Ouch. It happened, and those were some pretty painful pricetags.

The muleys they rope at Clovis will average about 420 pounds apiece, and will be walking fresh for the first round of slack on Tuesday, April 20. The four-head format will include two long rounds in Tuesday and Wednesday slack (April 20-21). The top 36—12 per perf—will advance to the progressive-round perfs on Thursday and Friday evenings, April 22-23, and the Saturday afternoon perf on April 24. The top 12 teams on three will then rope in Sunday’s April 25 matinee short round. As a fun aside, muleys also will be roped—per tradition—the week after Clovis at the Guymon (Oklahoma) Pioneer Days Rodeo.

Matt Sherwood, who serves as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roping director, approved the muleys at Clovis for multiple reasons.

“First of all, Clovis adds equal money ($25,000 a side) and is an awesome committee that really tries to put on a good rodeo for the cowboys,” Sherwood said. “Not knowing if they’d be allowed to go ahead with their rodeo until really recently, they were understandably hesitant to ask their steer contractor to buy a hundred $600 steers. They like a longer barrier and walking fresh steers in Clovis, and this allowed them to do both. I think it’s going to be a great show for them.

“I like that Clovis is a four-header, because everybody has a chance. I’m willing to try something new (with the muleys) that might generate even more people wanting to come to a rodeo that maybe they haven’t been coming to. Rodeos that rope muleys tend to get more ropers. Guymon’s a good example. They roped muleys at the rodeo in Burwell, Nebraska, last summer, too. Roping muleys adds another element of difficulty, and gives a lot of guys a chance at the money. Roping muleys is fun.”

Jake and Clay closing the deal on the 2002 team roping title at The Daddy, with a little help from Jake’s Cents and Clay’s Ike.

Jake and Clay closing the deal on the 2002 team roping title at The Daddy, with a little help from Jake’s Cents and Clay’s Ike.

Sherwood—who laughs when admitting to also answering to “the third-place heeler at this year’s American” lately—noted that the tentative plan is to gate cut the most even muleys for the 36-team progressive round and also the 12-team finals. Sherwood will be teaching the heeling half of a roping school with Jake Barnes in Grand Junction, Colorado, during Clovis, but will be tending to business through pre-planning and responsible representatives to make for the fairest possible competition.

An electric eye will be used at Clovis, and both ropers will come from behind a barrier. The heading scoreline will be 20 feet, with a 17-foot score on the heeling side.

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The cowboy consensus on roping muleys at Clovis seems to be “old-school cool.” California and Arizona team ropers have historically roped a lot of hornless cattle. Who better to offer comment than Arizona-born, California-raised Hall of Famer Clay Cooper?

“A four-header over a long score on muleys is old school and very cool,” said Cooper, who won the 2002 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo heeling muleys behind his partner in seven gold buckles, Jake Barnes. “It’ll make for a completely different competition, and I think it’s cool of Clovis to do that. Roping muleys is a different deal. We used to jackpot on muleys quite a bit earlier in my career. Headers can’t really reach a long way, because you’re having to rope them around the neck. So they’ll run in there a little closer, and soften things up with the handle. Cattle handle differently with a neck catch than a horn catch. Sometimes they handle better, especially when they’re fresh. Some headers who haven’t roped muleys much aren’t sure about them. But most guys are handy enough and handle their ropes good enough to get up over them, get their tip down and throw a good, sharp loop.

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“More people feeling like they have a chance to win will make for nothing but a better-paying roping for everyone entered. I’ve practiced on a lot of muleys over the years, including with Jake, because it’s easier to hold your money together on them when you don’t take such a hit when you sell, like with horned steers. When I went to Brazil, all they roped was muleys. Even on horned steers, the legal catch is around the neck in Brazil.”

The conversation about the 2021 Clovis Rodeo would not be complete without a note on the COVID protocols that were put in place to make having this year’s rodeo possible. To those who’ve clobbered this committee on social media for following procedures mandated by state and local authorities, please consider that their compliance was the only path forward. Even insurance was contingent on following state and local guidelines. And no one wanted the Clovis rodeo cancelled a second straight year.

“We’re in the red tier of the California tiering system for COVID,” Genco said. “For us to break even, we need a crowd of about 50 percent capacity. Without the regulations we are having to live with—proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours before entry or proof of vaccination or a doctor’s note saying you’ve had COVID within the last 90 days or a negative on-site rapid test—they would only allow us 20 percent capacity. We’ve been working really closely with the health department and the city of Clovis to do what we have to do to make the rodeo happen.”

Safety protocols are the same for contestants and fans. Fresno County will open free mobile COVID rapid testing at the rodeo grounds a few days before the rodeo starts that will continue for the rodeo’s duration.

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“People who want to attend can drive right up in their cars and get tested, free of charge,” Genco said. “The county has agreed to pay for it, and volunteers will be working the mobile testing site.”

Genco noted that testing volunteers will open shop at 6:30 Monday morning, April 19, for cowboys to get tested before the start of the John W. Jones Memorial Steer Wrestling, which is held in memory of a great guy and cowboy, and is PRCA-sanctioned this year.

“Or contestants can get a COVID test at home, as long as they show up at the rodeo grounds within 72 hours of testing negative,” Genco said. “And that one test or proof of testing negative or vaccination lasts for the duration of the rodeo. The Clovis Rodeo means so much to this community. We’re doing everything in our power to make it a great event for contestants and fans.”

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