Team Effort

Team Effort

After mentors showed heeler Junior Nogueira the ropes, he went straight to the top.

Man in a teal shirt heeling a steer from the back of a buckskin horse.

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Story by Kendra Santos

When Brazilian cowboy phenom Junior Nogueira came to America to stay in 2014, he was broke and didn’t speak English or even own a horse. ProRodeo Hall of Fame header Jake Barnes welcomed young Junior into his home and heart, and showed him the ropes on his dream of roping for a living. Two years later, Junior earned the ultimate cowboy crown as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion all-around cowboy. Now 32, he continues to blaze an impressive trail and expand his cowboy horizons. And though his quest for a world team roping title continues, he has now added AQHA world champion to his stellar roping resume.

Just before roping at his seventh-straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo since his debut with Jake in 2014, Junior in  November 2020 competed at his first AQHA World Championship Show. Not surprisingly, the guy who qualified for his first NFR that same year he earned 2014 Resistol Rookie Heeler of the Year honors was an immediate hit at horse showing’s highest level. Junior and his prized gray mare, Apache R Hali, grabbed a pair of AQHA globes in Oklahoma City, as “Hali” earned the titles of 2020 AQHA senior heading world champion and AQHA senior heeling reserve world champion. Junior says he has won more than half of his $1.5 million in rodeo arenas on the back of Hali, who’s a 2007 model by Apache Blue Boy out of RA Soft Smoken by JD Playin Gin.

“Hali just wants to be great at everything she does,” Junior says of the 15.1-hand wonder horse. “She’s the prettiest horse I’ve ever ridden and the best horse I’ve ever had. She’s so solid and so smart, and I can head, heel and rope calves on her. To live her whole life on the rodeo trail, then win the World Show–it takes a very, very special and unique horse to do that.”

Junior’s not new to showing rope horses. He comes by his love of the cowboy sport naturally.

“My dad (Lucinei Nogueira Sr.) won a lot in the AQHA in Brazil,” Junior says of the dad he lost at just 5 years old to a heart attack, when Nogueira Sr. was backing his horse in the box to run a calf at a rodeo. “If I was in Brazil, showing horses is what I’d be doing. I have a lot of calf-horse trainers in my family still today.

“My dad was like the Trevor Brazile of Brazil. He loved to rope. He headed and heeled and rode some bucking horses, too. His No. 1 event was calf roping, but he did it all. He bulldogged and even worked as a pickup man. My dad was a cowboy, and he loved the sport of rodeo.”

Heeling is Junior’s signature event, but his second event in that 2016 world all-around title was tie-down roping. In every event, Junior’s not alone in recognizing the importance of good horses and strong horsemanship skills. Junior credits the late renowned horseman Robbie Schroeder, the 1999 AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year, as a major influence and mentor.

“Robbie Schroeder was the best horseman ever, in my opinion,” Junior says. “The first time I ever came to America, the first place I ever roped a steer was Robbie’s arena. Robbie invited me to come stay, and he was so amazing with horses. That was a short first trip, then I went back to Brazil. When I came to America the second time, I stayed with and worked for Robbie for six months. I worked for Robbie in 2007 and 2009. As the years went on, Robbie told me every time I talked to him, ‘I’m so proud of you, I love you like a son.’ I last spoke to Robbie (before his December 30 Covid-related death) during the 2020 NFR, and he built me up with confidence when I needed it. Robbie was a great friend, and he taught me so much about horses and horsemanship.”

And don’t underestimate what it means to Junior to do his dad’s legacy with horses proud. 

“My dad was a respected horseman and trainer, so I take pride in building on what he started,” Junior says. “I come from a family of good horse trainers and horsemen–my dad, my uncles, my cousins. I always dreamed of being a good enough horseman to win a world championship in the AQHA. I trained a lot of horses from zero to finished in Brazil. To win the world on one of my own horses was super special to me. The horses we ride are everything. It’s like a race. There are a bunch of good racecar drivers, but if you put the best driver in a car with no motor, he won’t win. He might finish the race, but he will not win. Good horses don’t just make my job easier–they make it possible.”

Junior has three primary rodeo horses right now: Hali (at left); “Green Card,” who is registered as Peppers Homespun Kid, a 15-year-old brown gelding by Pepper Joe Hancock; and “Timon,” his 11-year-old buckskin registered as Kiehnes Frosty Pepto. Robbie found Green Card for Junior, and that’s the horse Junior was riding at the 2017 NFR when he and Kaleb Driggers tied Chad Masters and Jade Corkill, and Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes' 3.3-second world team roping record. Junior bought Hali from two-time world champion team roper Kollin VonAhn in 2016, after she helped Kollin win his second gold buckle in 2015. Junior continues to raise his own roping and horsemanship bar, with extra emphasis on consistency.

“I often roped out of position earlier in my career, and basically just roped for myself,” Junior says. “I’ve gotten more mature in my roping and my horsemanship. I realize now how important it is to keep your horses working good. Good horsemanship helps you in every situation. I’ve learned to ride my horses right and to ride them the same every time.”

Such wisdoms have roots in Junior’s stay with Barnes back when he came from South America to stay in the States. Out of love and respect for how they took him in, he calls Jake “Dad” and wife Toni “Mom” to this day, as they are a second family to him.

“When I first came to stay with Jake, I brought nothing from Brazil,” says Junior, who notes that Jake’s first pro rodeo partner, Allen Bach, also influenced his career since his mom attended a Bach roping school in Brazil when Junior was 7 and Allen gave the little Brazilian boy a few pro bono dummy-roping tips. “I had a dream and $500 in my pocket when I got to America to rope with Jake in 2014. I went and bought a rope at a feed store. Jake and Toni took me in and treated me like family. That was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. Jake is hard working and intense, and he was strict with me. Getting to rope with Jake for two years changed my life. I thank God and Jake for everything I have. Living with him was life changing. Jake’s my hero.”

Jake believes Junior was heaven sent.

“God sent Junior to me,” Jake says. “Allen Bach first brought me into professional rodeo, then I lived with Leo (Camarillo), and he taught and trained me about treating team roping as a business. I lived with Leo when he was showing me the ropes, then Junior lived with me when I was basically passing along what I learned from Leo to Junior. That’s the circle of rodeo life for you. Leo looked at guys like me and Tee Woolman as sons. I felt the same way about Junior, and still do. It was pretty cool to get to help Junior and to get to see him through his first NFR. To see all the success Junior has had makes me pretty proud. 

“I thought I was done rodeoing hard when Junior showed up. I’d sold my truck and trailer, and our youngest son was off to college, so Toni and I were empty nesters. Then here came Junior. Helping Junior felt like giving back for what guys like Leo did for me. It’s neat when you can make a difference in someone’s life. Junior made a difference in my life, too.”

Junior has come a long way since his humble beginnings growing up in the small town of Presidente Prudente, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Thank goodness for a super mom in Eliziane and a loving little sister, Ludmila. 

“Looking back, it sucks that I lost my dad when I was just a little boy,” says Junior, who now lives in Lipan, Texas, with his wife, Jaqueline, and their two children. “But I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. It was hard not having a dad. My dad was everybody’s superhero. Then he was gone. Good thing I have a great mom. My mom is so strong, and she was the first woman to rope in Brazil. To this day, she can tell me what I’m doing wrong when I’m struggling with my heeling.”

Junior’s earliest memory is of roping with his dad.

“When I was 3 years old, my dad roped a steer and pulled him out in front of the chute for me to heel,” Junior says. “A guy put me on my little bay pony and built my loop. I missed him, and the guy on the ground rebuilt my loop. I started swinging my play rope again, and the guy led my pony a little closer. I threw it down there again, and my dad dragged that gentle steer into my loop, and I dallied. We were all so excited. That started it all.”

Junior earned success early on. Before his arrival in America, he won nine cars, 57 motorcycles and two horse trailers back home in Brazil.

“I knew I needed to come to America, because the best cowboys in the world live here,” he says. “We always heard of them, and I watched the videos my dad had of Jake Barnes, Clay Cooper, Allen Bach and Walt Woodard roping over and over, and tried to copy everything about roping from America. Everything I learned in Brazil was from Americans. Cell phones and the internet did not exist back then, but I tried to wear out my dad’s roping tapes.”

Junior came to America to stay at 23, and with that first NFR in 2014 became the first Brazilian team roping qualifier. Jake and Junior qualified for a second NFR together in 2015, but Jake suffered a serious head injury when a horse fell practicing right before the Finals, so JoJo LeMond filled in and headed for Junior. Besides Barnes, headers of special note in Junior’s career to date have included Driggers (2016 through early 2020, and 2022) and Cody Snow in 2021, who won the 2019 NFR with Wesley Thorp and helped Wesley win his first gold buckle that year. Not coincidentally, Junior has had great success with them all.

“Like Jake, Kaleb is a perfectionist, and he’s smart,” Junior says. “He practices a lot and always has the best horses he can. Those guys are winners. They try so hard and never give up. Cody’s the same way, and he’s one of the most talented young guys out there today. Cody’s already great, and he’s going to get greater.”

The GOATS (greatest of all time) of the game say the same about Junior. Jake and Clay Cooper were a dream-team dynasty and won seven world team roping titles together in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Junior has always amazed me,” Clay says. “I went down to Brazil and did a school a long time ago. I was impressed with their level of talent and their horses. Junior obviously really excelled at home in Brazil, and from the get-go when he got to America, you could tell that his God-given natural ability, instincts and work ethic were all there. All the components of a winner are in play and firing. Junior is a student of the game, and I think he’ll just keep getting better and better. The sky’s the limit for Junior Nogueira.”

Junior’s trademark “Pullback for Jesus” phrase–when he catches two feet and rears back so far he hits his head on his horse’s butt–has been popular with everyone but the ever-humble Barnes, who’s old-school enough to frown on any and all hotdogging.

“I started doing that a long time ago in Brazil,” Junior says, smiling. “I got it from watching a guy in Brazil who did it. Jake used to get mad at me for doing that. So I save it for special runs now–when I finish my job and know I’m going to win.”

Junior has won just about every major rodeo and roping there is, with winning RodeoHouston and the Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic still on his bucket list. Then there’s that elusive PRCA world team roping title that everyone just knows will come his way one of these days. Junior has been the reserve world champion heeler four times in the past seven years. 

“It used to drive me crazy that I haven’t won the world in the team roping,” Junior says. “But I have peace now, because I know I’ve worked hard and done everything in my power. I’ve finished No. 1 in the regular season (before the NFR) four times now, from 2016-2019, and that means you were the best team out there in all situations. These days, whoever has the best NFR wins the world. Kaleb and I were the best team in the world, but we didn’t win the world. I could be mad about that. But now that I have my family, I don’t want to be stressed anymore. Life is too short, and seven NFRs in a row is a blessing. I’m going to keep trying hard and working hard, but winning the world isn’t everything. And it’s not like I don’t have a gold buckle.”

Junior takes brief rodeo breaks to visit his native Brazil. But America is host and home to his rodeo dreams.

“This country gave it all to me, and I’ll always be thankful for that,” Junior says. “I have an amazing rodeo family, and I’ve been blessed with some really good horses that have everything to do with my success. I rope because I love to rope. It’s in my blood, and my whole family on both sides are cowboys. I couldn’t have run away from this cowboy life. It’s who I am, and who we are as a family. I loved to play soccer as a kid, but being a cowboy has always been in my heart. 

“I would rope all night when I was a kid. I put a steer in a little square corral and chased that steer around on my pony. I heeled him and dallied, and I did that over and over and over again. There was only one little light in the barn. I climbed up there once to point it at that little corral. I was a maniac about roping. I couldn’t think of anything else. When I was roping, I forgot about everything else going on in the world. I remember that so clearly, and some things never change. I still love roping like that today.”

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2021 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal, which is mailed to all AQHA members as a benefit of their membership in the largest equine breed association in the world. Join AQHA now.