Evert Muzio Jr. is a real-deal cowboy classic. Best known in the cowboy community as Junior, the team roping grape farmer is a popular character who keeps everybody laughing. He’s also a highly respected lifelong horseman and a three-time National Finals Rodeo header.
This beloved living legend makes people laugh, and is rarely seen without his trademark, sincere smile. When Junior Muzio gets to talking about horses and roping, the wise ones of all ages stop and listen.
“I love rodeo history—I always have,” said three-time World Champion Team Roper Clay Tryan, 38. “California is one of the last places where the old guys—the Gold Card guys who did it before us—ride around with you at the rodeos. Some of the young guys don’t even know these guys are legends.
“Guys like Junior lived the same life we’re living now, only in a lot of ways they had it a lot harder than we do. We have cell phones; they didn’t. We have hay pods; they didn’t. They usually only had one horse; most of us have the luxury of more than that. We all share a common bond. And there’s a lot we can learn from those guys. They’ve been there, and they know all about it.”
Muzio, who turned 83 on July 13, roped at three NFRs. He roped at his first Finals with Frank Ferreira Sr. some 57 years ago, in 1961. The team of Muzio and Ferreira placed in the last four of that year’s eight NFR rounds. Junior finished 13th in the world with $3,177—back before headers and heelers had separate standings and gold buckles, and only 15 team ropers total were recognized in the world standings.
Team roping was not included with the rest of the events at the first three NFRs, which were held in Dallas, Texas. Muzio and Ferreira and the rest of the 1961 NFR team roping field had their event’s finals in Santa Maria, California. Team ropers dallied on half the steers and team tied the other half that year.
Muzio and Ferreira roped at a second NFR together in 1963, and this time they competed alongside the rest of that year’s Finals contestants in Los Angeles and dallied every round. They split the fourth round with Don McBride and Harold Mattos in 8 flat, and placed in two others. The NFR was again eight rounds, and Muzio finished 10th in the world that year with $4,973 in annual earnings. Also remember that team roping was not included at the majority of rodeos back then.
Junior roped at his third NFR with fellow California grape farmer John Paboojian in 1966. They won the eighth of that year’s eight Finals rounds, and their 7.1 was the fast time of the Finals. The score was longer at Oklahoma City’s Jim Norick Arena than it is now at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, and it was again half dally and half team tying. The steers were bigger than they are today, too. A round at the 2017 NFR paid $26,231 a man. Muzio and Paboojian were paid $215 apiece for their 1966 go-round win.
“My dad (the late Evert Muzio Sr., who came to America from Italy when he was 16) was a dairyman,” said Muzio Jr., who roped a lot of calves and bulldogged, too, in his younger years. “When I was younger, we had a dairy and milk cows. We raised a lot of our own hay, too. A dairy is hard work—24/7. It never ends.”
“We eventually sold the dairy, and started raising cotton and silage corn. Then I started planting wine grapes. I never traveled much. I couldn’t. To me, roping was a part-time job. I had to win some money. I had four kids, and my wages were $300 a month and a house on the ranch. Trying to win a gold buckle was never a thought.”
His dad was good with horses, and Junior inherited that passion and those skills. And not just for team roping horses. He raised and trained a sorrel mare back in the day with roots back to Willard Combs’ legendary Baby Doll. ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler and fellow Californian Jack Roddy won Salinas (the California Rodeo) on her.
“Horses are like athletes,” Muzio said. “You start with the right one that has the right mind, and don’t over-push them. [ProRodeo Hall of Fame Calf Roper] Don McLaughlin said when I was just a kid that when you get those really good horses, you’re not smart, you’re lucky. It’s up to you to take care of them.”
Junior’s had a knack for scouting good prospects, then bringing them along old-school style with a rock-solid foundation.
“I like a medium-built horse that’s about 14.3-15.1 hands, and weighs 1,150-1,200 pounds,” he said. “When you look at all the horses these guys are riding now to make 3- and 4-second runs, they run a little closer to the ground and are short-strided and quick.
“As far as a horse’s mind, they’re just like people. For this line of work, they have to be able to take pressure. When you back in that box with a chance to win something, you transfer that pressure you’re feeling through your legs. They feel it, too, and they have to be able to handle it.”
There are no secrets or shortcuts that trump a solid foundation. And as the old saying goes, there is no substitute for wet saddle blankets.
“I learned from my dad to saddle them, then tie them up awhile before you get on,” Muzio said. “Then lope them, and maybe tie them up again, and go do something else before you rope on the young ones. Horses need a lot of riding. When they aren’t so fresh, they have a better attitude. And don’t overdo it. When they start to work for you, you make four or five decent runs on them, and they’re thinking, ‘This is how I’m supposed to work,’ score two or three and put ’em up.”
Tryan ended up with two horses that came through Muzio’s gimmick-free horse program. In 2006, the year after he won his first world championship roping with Patrick Smith, Clay bought a gray horse he called Sweets from Junior.
“I had Sweets the same time I had (his great black horse) Thumper, and rode him about three years,” Tryan said. “Sweets was how I got to know Junior. I’d been told he was really good with his horses. I jackpotted on that horse, and won Salinas on him. He was a good horse. Then he broke his foot at the rodeo at Sisters (Oregon).
“When I had Sweets, I went and stayed at Junior’s house during the rodeo at Clovis (California, where Muzio lives with his wife, Betty). He had a unique, almost calf-lane arena, with an old chute with a real quiet front gate, and roped Holsteins and Jerseys. I talked to him at the house at night, and we watched old roping runs. He had, like, Salinas in 1969 on tape. He told me old stories, like the time he won the calf roping at Oakdale when he was in his late ’40s. That’s hard to do. Junior Muzio’s a great storyteller.”
Tryan bought a second Muzio-trained horse, a little bay they called Raisin, from Ronny Darnell in 2009. Darnell, who bought the horse from Muzio before selling him to Tryan, won the first-ever BFI with the late Matt Silveira in 1977.
“I say I’ve owned four great horses in my life,” Tryan said. “Raisin was the fifth one. I just didn’t get to ride him long enough for anyone else to get to see how good he was. That horse was big-time legit. He died in a freak trailer accident right after I bought him, but he was the real deal, and Junior trained him.”
Like a lot of the old-school cowboys, horned cattle have always been scarce at Junior’s place.
“I’ve always roped muleys,” Muzio said. “They’re cheaper, they eat less, they’re lighter for a young horse to pull, and they just fit my long, narrow calf roping arena better.”
At 5’ 7” and 175 pounds, Junior’s never been a giant. His horses were his equalizer.
“Good horses were a big part of my luck,” he said, grinning.
Tryan has always been amazed at how much horse history Muzio has stored in his head.
“Junior knows stuff about horse bloodlines that go back to before what’s on a horse’s papers,” Tryan said. “Horses are better now than they’ve ever been—in part because we’ve been smarter about breeding them. When you’re buying horses, you don’t really care as much about the bloodlines. It’s more like, ‘How good are they now?’ But if you’re going to invest the time it takes to make a good one, starting with the right kind of horse is crucial.
“Everybody thinks they’re a horse trainer. But not that many people are great at it. I’m good at riding a good one, but I don’t claim to be a horse trainer. It takes time. And patience. It’s hard to make a horse from scratch when you’re out there rodeoing.”
Muzio’s home-based life has always been conducive to horse building.
“I liked the competition and I loved to win,” he said. “It was a challenge. But I never traveled much. I couldn’t. I wanted to build a ranch, have it paid for, and have something to show for it all later on. I’d seen too many cowboys rodeo hard, and when they were done they had nothing. I had a family and a business at home.
“Too many good cowboys—some of the best—held it together and maybe broke even for a while. But pretty soon they were 45 years old and out punching cows on somebody else’s ranch. I never saw myself just going down the road.”
He laughs at the thought of $200 day moneys at the NFR, but is quick to also compare the costs of the day before figuring the bottom-line profit.
“One year, I won $5,000 in a month, and I thought I was rich,” Muzio said. “I won the Cow Palace with Frank Santos, and I won second at the Oakdale 10 Steer with Dennis Taylor. The entry fees at the Cow Palace were $100, and they were $120 at Oakdale. Gas was 28 cents a gallon, and I was only away from home a night or two. I remember one hotel room at the Cow Palace was $6-$7 a night.
“Frank and I won the Cow Palace a couple times (in 1976 and ’79) when it was the last major rodeo before the NFR, and all the guys who rodeoed for a living were there. We laugh now, because we realize that the odds of a grape farmer and a horse doctor ever doing that again are probably slim and none. Team roping is unbelievably tough today.”
That’s evolution for you, and the cowboy sport is not exempt.
“I was raised to respect my elders and the game,” Tryan said. “And the guys who came before us and blazed the trail deserve our respect. Everyone wants to say they’re the best of their generation. But guess what? These kids that come after you will be even better. That’s just life.
“The people who did it before you made the sport what it is. You can learn a lot from them if you’ll just pay attention. I’m smarter now than I was when I was 20. And hopefully I’ll be smarter when I’m 60 than I am now.”
When the team roping slack ends at, say, Salinas, you’ll see a lot of the young guns clear out and head for the cowboy campground. But if you’ll watch the wise veterans—the likes of Tryan, Matt Sherwood, and Trevor Brazile—they don’t move a muscle until the Gold Card roping is over. They enjoy watching the living legends of the game in action, and they’re not blind to the fact that their elders tend to ride some pretty nice horses.
“I’m a watch-and-learn guy,” Tryan said. “And I can learn so much from watching a guy like Junior Muzio. I’ve talked to a lot of people in California for a long time, and they all say he had a lot of good horses over the years. That obviously does not surprise me. I got to ride some of them.
“Junior was a farmer, and he had a big old sandy part of his place ripped up where he’d lope horses and get ’em tired and in shape out in a field before he ever took them to the arena. He knows his bloodlines, so he knew what he was looking for to start with. Then he took things slow with that quiet gate and those muleys. Junior knows what he’s doing, he takes his time, and he’s an honest guy about his horses. Junior Muzio loves horses, and it shows.”
True. Muzio’s lived the cowboy life, and loved every minute of it.
“Having a good horse is life or death, if you want to win,” Muzio said. “So many people rope these days compared to when I started. The numbering system has been such a blessing to the sport, because it gave everyone a chance to win. There’s something for everybody.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have had a great balance in my life. I got to have a family, and a business, and I was able to pay for a ranch by putting it all together. I don’t rope as much now as I used to, but I rope a little with my neighbor, Josh, who’s a policeman.
“My dad always said that if you have a house that’s cool enough in the summertime and warm enough in the wintertime, and you have enough to eat, you’re good and you have all you really need. I have no complaints. I love this cowboy life, and I feel lucky the way I’ve gotten to live it.”