It was a glittering night in Fort Worth.
At the Will Rogers Memorial Center, the tables were set with silver and crystal placed carefully next to centerpieces of fresh-cut roses.
Guests were in their country best, gowns and dress jackets mixed with cowboy hats, neatly pressed denim, and boots polished to a fine sheen.
This was the big night of the year for the National Reined Cow Horse Association. New members of the group’s Hall of Fame would be announced on this night.
And, too, the annual Vaquero Award would be bestowed, among the most coveted honors in the world of competitive horsemanship.
It’s given to a man or woman who, over decades, upholds time-honored values of the West: honesty, hard work, fair play.
Above all, it recognizes superb horsemanship and respect for the animal as exemplified by the vaqueros of early California.
The award has been part of the annual gala for many years. In all that time, it has never been bestowed on a farrier — otherwise known as a horseshoer.
That would change tonight.
Among the guests on this glittering night is a man wearing a black cowboy hat with bright blue eyes and a wiry, athletic build.
Joseph Louis Magistri, Lodi born and bred, is a horseshoer, and much more.
Mentor with hammer and anvil
Just south of Lodi, near Micke Grove Park, the weather is changing.
As morning light dims, dark clouds roil overhead. The rain pops softly on the roof of Joe Magistri’s shoeing barn, part of a spread that includes a barn, corrals and the house Magistri shares with his wife, Jo.
Below the roof, three horses, Cash, DJ and Gunny, are safe and dry. The smell of rain and leather and smoke mix in the air.
With the help of apprentices and assistants, Magistri is shoeing the three horses this morning, deftly using nippers and a rasp and a hammer.
He is 74, and he has been shoeing horses — and caring for them — for more than half a century.
The years, seemingly, make no difference. Magistri is up before the sun and works a long day that’s testing both mentally and physically.
This morning, he darts among the horses and his protégés. He wears a leather horseshoer’s vest, denim pants, boots and a plaid wool shirt. His gray baseball-style cap reads: thehorseshoebarn.com.
His eyes are constantly scanning. For a bruise or injury to the horse. For an assistant who needs a pointer on which shoes to use on which hoof.
For a horse whose ears may be twitching in a way that might mean trouble.
“You have to be alert. Always alert,” he said. “Otherwise, you won’t last in this business.”
Magistri has lasted. He’s known as a skilled technician, a gifted mentor, a horseman with uncanny intuition.
The horses’ owner, Mike Parks of Valley Springs, has trailered his animals all the way to Magistri’s shoeing barn this morning because he trusts him.
“There are lots and lots of people who can shoe horses in California,” Parks said. “You know how many can do it right?”
He holds up his right hand and extends a few fingers.
“And Joe is one of them.”
A nail hammered poorly, a shoe that’s the wrong size, a knife that cuts the hoof too deep — any of these failings can leave a horse lame or infected.
With near balletic grace, Magistri moves through the shoeing barn. He doesn’t slow down. He never stops.
“There is a phrase I like: Hustle, but don’t hurry,” he said.
Once, he worked solo. Over the years, he’s taken on apprentices, many of whom are now independent farriers.
He found he liked mentoring, and his students liked him.
“His apprentices love Joe,” said Bob Smith, operator of the Pacific Horseshoeing School in Plymouth. “But he’s also no-nonsense. He tells them straight away if they’re doing something that’s not in the best interests of the horse.”
Smith said he sends his graduates to Magistri, and has for years, because he knows they’ll learn right and be treated well.
“Some horseshoers just want free labor and somebody to do chores. Not Joe. He pays his people fairly, and he advances their skills constantly,” he said.
Magistri is keenly attuned to each horse he shoes, Smith said.
“Joe shoes a lot of horses. A lot. Not all of them are gentle. Now, you have horseshoers who would insist that those horses be sedated before they shoe them. Or they use ropes and chains in a way that is frankly brutal to control the horse,” he said.
“Joe can shoe almost all of those horses without drugs or ropes because he takes the time to understand them. He’s spent a lifetime studying horses. He’s patient when he needs to be.
“I tell him he’s half horse. That gives him an advantage.”
Magistri has offered horseshoeing clinics across the West, including at UC Davis. He’s won horseshoeing awards, too, including The World’s Best Quality Horseshoer and Fastest Shoer at Bishop Mule Days.
Through a friend, Dick Webb, who provided horses to the entertainment industry, Magistri shod one of the palominos who played TV’s Mr. Ed and John Wayne’s favorite horse, Dollor. He also shod Smoky, the drunken horse in the movie “Cat Ballou.” (Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his performance in “Cat Ballou,” and during his acceptance speech, he clutched the golden statuette and said, “half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the valley.”)
At Magistri’s shoeing barn, the tools are being cleaned, the floor is being swept and two dogs, Pip and Duke, are looking for scraps of hoof to munch on.
Jennifer Sherry, one of Magistri’s assistants, said she’s worked with horseshoers, especially older ones, who are fixed in their ways. Magistri, though, is always eager to learn, she said, always open to new ideas.
“Plus, he is flat-out the hardest-working man I have ever met,” she said.
Magistri, with one of his assistants, typically shoes 10 or more horses a day. Each job pays $100 to $150.
Smith said there is only one problem with nudging a student toward Magistri.
“They have a hard time keeping up. Joe is a working maniac. When apprentices come back after a day with Joe, they are exhausted.”
A wonder on wheels
Sometimes, the horses are brought to Magistri. Sometimes, Magistri, along with an assistant, go to the horses.
When they do, they travel in a truck that itself is a marvel.
It’s a big white Chevy twin cab, but what’s special is on the back: a horseshoeing shop and storeroom in one.
The shop is wrapped in stainless steel. It has power and lights. It carries 1,000 or more horseshoes — steel shoes and aluminum shoes, shoes for “backyard” horses and show horses, racehorses and jumping horses.
Sometimes, if it is in good shape, Magistri can reuse a shoe. Sometimes, he can use a shoe off his truck that, with some skilled shaping, will fit right. Sometimes, though, he has to build a new shoe for a horse with an injury or a defect.
He has pads that can be tucked between hoof and shoe to provide extra support or cushioning.
There are angle grinders to shape shoes, drill presses to create nail holes, rasps to level hooves, hammers to drive nails, knives to clean out soles.
He has to be ready to shoe any kind of horse at virtually any time.
Magistri shoes competitive champions that earn many thousands in prize money. His friendships with top trainers in the cow horse world stretch across the country and go back decades.
Whether it be a national champion or a pleasure horse, though, his assistants say Magistri insists that the horse be shoed to the same exacting standards.
“Joe does every horse like it’s a $100,000 horse,” said Davis Grupe, one of Magistri’s assistants.
And if any horse throws one of Magistri’s shoes, he’ll rush to replace it himself if he can, and there will be no charge.
Also on the back of the Magistri truck is a forge that can burn 2,600 degrees, hot enough to make steel malleable.
And there is a monster anvil that sits like a gargoyle on the back of the truck, anchored to a swing bar so it can be pulled out wide.
All of this, Magistri has learned through the years, is essential.
That’s because each horse, and each hoof, is different.
And for Magistri, it’s all about the horse.
Gene, Roy and Hopalong
Magistri’s home and shoeing barn sit on land near Micke Grove Park that’s been in Magistri’s family for generations.
As a kid, he talked his dad into buying him a horse, which he named Stormy. The outskirts of Lodi were wide open in those days, and Magistri would ride the horse for hours through the orchards and fields and vineyards.
He also talked his dad into buying a TV, and he became mesmerized by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.
“As a kid, all he wanted to be was a cowboy,” said his wife, Jo Magistri.
Asked about his years at Lodi High, Magistri said he didn’t join clubs or play sports.
“I rode,” he said. “I would come home and work. I’d drive the tractor and disc or spray sulfur on the farm. Then I’d go riding.”
His grades were good enough to earn him a spot at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where he aimed to work toward becoming a veterinarian.
He’s a quick study. By his own admission, though, he didn’t particularly enjoy the studies at college. Instead, he enrolled in the school’s three-month farrier program, and earned his certificate in 1967.
He embraced numerous mentors, kept learning, and kept building his reputation.
He’s succeeded where many fall by the trailside, Smith said.
After 10 years, it’s estimated that most horseshoers have left the field, he said. After 20 years, it’s a very small percentage who endure. Some of that is the result of physical strain and injury. A kick in the head or the gut can put a horseshoer out for months, and the income dries up.
A few years ago, Magistri himself was injured when some kids on Power Wheels zoomed past a horse he was shoeing. The mare straightened the leg Magistri was cradling, causing trauma to his leg and back.
He was out for two months.
Yet Magistri and some others live by an honor code that might make the cowboys of old smile.
Other horseshoers rallied around Magistri. With Magistri on crutches but looking on intently, his friends covered all of his rounds for him. As long as Magistri was on the job site, his clients were fine with the arrangement.
Magistri has done the same for other horseshoers, for nothing more than a handshake and a thank-you.
Inside the ranch-style home he shares with Jo, the living room holds rows of belt buckles, saddles and other awards for his prowess.
Some of these were earned for horseshoeing. Many were earned for riding. He still competes in reined cow horse events, demanding the highest teamwork between horse and rider.
There are horseshoers who seldom if ever climb into a saddle.
His years of riding have given Magistri a unique sensitivity to horses.
“He knows how to read a horse. It’s just amazing what he can get a horse to do,” Jo Magistri said.
Her husband gently scoffs.
“Everything I’ve done, it’s because I’ve had great teachers,” he said. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with wonderful horses and wonderful horsemen.”
The Vaquero Award given to Magistri last October in Fort Worth hangs proudly in the living room now, in the form of a handsome framed parchment.
It is a tribute to time-honored values of honesty and hard work and respect for cow horses and all they symbolize.
It’s is a tribute to a cowboy, in the spirit of the True West — a man who rode horses in the countryside south of Lodi so many years ago, and rides them still.