Oklahoma couple breeds longhorns for riding
July 14, 2017
A cattle breed whose horns are noted for their extraordinary length sports a heritage even longer, all the way back to the Iberian Peninsula. Often called Texas Longhorns, the bovines came across the sea with Christopher Columbus.
Abandoned in the New World by 15th century explorers, these Spanish cattle spent the next few centuries unencumbered by human demands as they honed survival skills no other domestic breed has replicated.
Neal and DeeDee Strauss own, breed and promote Longhorns in Stillwater, Okla. Most of their cows conceive by AI (artificial insemination) to produce nearly designer calves, the first crop of which hit the ground in 2002.
"When handled with loving-kindness, Texas Longhorns bond emotionally to the persons who care for them," DeeDee Strauss said. "Our wonderful mother cows readily permit us to imprint their calves at birth."
Wait, what? Cattle handled with loving-kindness? Bovines are generally produced as dairy or meat animals with little to no human contact, at least none with long-term positive outcomes for the cattle.
"They grow up loving people and truly enjoy the close association," Strauss said. "We tend to use champion, 2,000-pound breeding bulls with superior conformation, thus producing stout steers with excellent minds, beautiful horns and good legs. They're able to carry a 200-pound man and 50-pound saddle."
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That's right, a saddle. Strauss's Premier Riding Longhorns are a rider's, not a butcher's, dream. In addition, each animal is unique, intelligent, athletic, affectionate, and make magnificent, traffic-stopping "pasture art," Strauss said. She said that, as a specialty breed, they really shine brightest as saddle cattle.
Strauss thinks the Longhorns are problem-solvers. She said that they use their horns like tools and always know where the tips are, just as humans do their fingers. Rather than panic and flee in stressful situations, they stop and think, she said.
"For instance, one time a newborn calf fell into the deep end of our pond," Strauss recalled. "His mother walked over and scooped him out of the water with her horn. Gently, quietly she placed him on all four feet on dry ground."
She remembered that two other Longhorn cows repeatedly treed a pair of bears. Each time the fearless cows returned to grazing, the bruins started back down and the cows returned to chase them back up. The amazing feat continued for several hours until the bears scooted down and away without detection.
A U.S. Forest Ranger at the Western Reserve in southern Oklahoma observed Longhorns swimming completely underwater beneath fences to go from pasture to pasture.
LOTS OF POTENTIAL
Strauss said Longhorns are keen to learn and can be ridden for Western pleasure, hunt seat, trail, can pull in harness, perform tricks, and acquire other useful disciplines.
"They are very athletic, long-legged and as tall as an average horse, she said. "They have a ground-covering walk, a lovely cadenced extended trot, and a rocking-horse lope. We employ basic dressage theory to teach them to be light and responsive and yield to pressure."
A measure of police horse training is incorporated to assure Premier saddle steers will become safe and confident in public. One example of this was their then 3-year-old bull, TR.
"While at a Civil War re-enactment, an authentic cannon was shot off hourly no more than 30 feet from TR. He took it all in stride," Strauss advised.
If that ignore-the-cannon calmness wasn't son-of-a-gun impressive enough, a Premier steer was hired for a Houston Hotel commercial. When the elevator doors opened, out he strutted. What viewers didn't know was that the tourism-touting narrator on his back didn't really "ride" black and white Abrams. Rather, he just sat atop while the big, docile Longhorn followed signals given to him by trainer Clay Bailey, who stood behind the camera.
Strauss did insert a caveat that not every steer is born with an aptitude to be ridden. Because the trait is inherited, Premier currently owns four saddle-broke cows for breeding stock. One especially noteworthy mama, Premier Astoria, is the longest-horned known saddle cow. She sports a tip-to-tip horn measurement of 86¾ inches — a stat that might make any bull red in the face with horn envy.
Clay Bailey and Strauss work in conjunction, and in ego-less harmony. She dubs him the best steer trainer around and he names her the most knowledgeable about bloodlines and production. Together, they "steer" prospective buyers to just the right saddle cattle for them.
"DeeDee and I work incredibly good together, and have for years," Bailey said.
Bailey has trained Longhorns for about 15 of the 20 years he's owned the breed. It all began when he met Fred and Marijo Balmer, who raise the cattle. The older couple became like another set of parents to Bailey. He said they are loyal friends, including being emotionally supportive when his son died in 2011.
In the beginning, Fred Balmer did all the ground work (training young steers to lead, cross tarps and bridges, etc.) while Bailey did the riding and finish work. Balmer, now 79, leaves most of it to his young protege on the 2,400-acre Albuquerque, N.M., ranch, where both families reside. Bailey described the saddle steer training process as no quick fix.
At around 6 months, the animal is pulled off pasture (or acquired from Strauss) for halter training. Next, at 10 months, comes harness and driving lessons with extensive reinforcement, then log pulling and chain dragging. The still-novice saddle Longhorn learns to pull a buggy at about 2 years old.
For really quiet steers, the following step is with Bailey leading while Raina Bingham (his fiance) side-walks while their 6- and 8-year-old children take turns riding to get the animal used to carrying weight.
Those kids are no greenhorns. Eight-year-old twin daughters, Savannah (Savy) and Rowan, and son C.J., 6, have competed at state fairs the past couple years in the Pee Wee Division. C.J.'s initial performance at age 4 was eye-popping when he calmly and proudly led his 2,500-pound steer, which towered over him, around the ring.
It takes several years to get a riding Longhorn ready for the wider world. But once seasoned, they take to crowds like ducks to water.
When the 2017 Gathering of Nations was held in Albuquerque, Bailey displayed his steers in pens at the two-day April pow-wow that drew 30,000-plus visitors. In late June 2017, his little steer, Bart, made his debut at a Single Action Shooters Society event. Crowds and noise don't phase the smart, quiet Longhorns. Readying one for sale usually takes three to four years of parades, fairs, grocery store parking lot exposure and more.
Besides his stint as an actor, Abrams once carried Bailey into their little town outside Albuquerque to do a few errands. When they reached the bank drive-thru, traffic kinda stopped when all the bank tellers lined up to get their pictures taken on the steer. One older lady required a leg-up, so nearby fire department personnel helped give her just the boost she needed.
"Only in a small town," Bailey said with a chuckle.
A huge Longhorn called Domingo proved he might have the aptitude of a hunter/jumper. He and Bart were pastured together when Domingo went missing one day. Strange, no fencing was down. Like Sherlock Holmes, Bailey cleverly followed his Longhorn into a neighbor's field because that guy's cattle all had small hooves, whereas Domingo's big bovine tracks were tremendous. They stood out like a sore thumb (hoof). And there he was, fighting with the neighbor's bull. Yes indeed, Domingo had leapt and cleared the fence. Neither animal was injured.
Bailey said he eventually quit picking potential riding candidates for color or horn length, instead selecting for personality. Since that change, his success rate has spiraled. Similarly, he looks at the eyes of breeding stock, preferring cattle with a soft, doe-eyed expression.
Also, and unlike many other domesticated breeds, you don't need to pull Longhorn calves. The cows' wider hips allow them to easily perform their maternity job themselves.
Besides readying Longhorns for sale as pleasure saddle cattle, Bailey has used his in parades, to educate school children, for team penning and to carry flags in rodeos. But he's never in a hurry to part with one.
If a steer is with him for eight to 10 years, he keeps it. When one is used up, generally by 16 to 18 years, it's put in "house pasture" to live out its years in verdant bliss; no slaughterhouse for these incredible and faithful creatures. Bailey and Balmer place their old pals in backhoe-dug graves with layers of cactus between layers of dirt so nothing can dig them up.
For example, "Bob" is Balmer's favorite steer. He will live out his life and be buried on his owner's land.
"We're a family," Bailey said. "It's a family deal."
For more information about Premier Riding Longhorns, visit, or email DeeDee Strauss at . ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.