Friday, January 6, 2012


All horns and no beef, the Texas Longhorn is as much a part of the mystique of the “Old West,” as the cowboy and his Colt Peacemaker.

Ancestors of the both the California and Texas Longhorns can be traced back to the marshes of Andalusia in Southern Spain and the wooded region of Extramadura in Western Spain.

These Andalusians were of the same lineage that produced the large black bulls of the Spanish and Latin-American bull rings.

They can be divided into three groups from the Andalusian areas; Retinta, a solid red, brown to tan colored animal; Black Andalusian, a solid black animal; and Berrenda, a white cow with black markings. The familiar high tail and narrow head of the Longhorn were also characteristic.

The people who lived in these regions sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the new world in 1493. These settlers brought with them these Andalusian cattle. They settled in the four island chain of the Antilles (Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico). The cattle roamed freely and became semi-wild, giving birth to calves with a spotted or speckled color pattern, which is typical of untamed animals.

In 1519, many of the Antilles settlers left for Mexico in search of gold and other rumored treasure, bringing cattle with them.

In 1521, Don Gregorio de Villalobos was sent as viceroy to “New Spain” and brought a number of calves from Santo Domingo to the Pánuco River valley near what is today Tampico, Mexico. The stock raisers in Hispaniola, afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of horses and cattle to the Spanish settlements, instituted severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stock to Mexico.

In 1690 the first herd of 200 Spanish cattle were driven north into what is now Texas, for the missions Spain had established there. The cattle were rugged, sharp-horned animals that ran thick in the brush country of South Texas and into New Mexico and Arizona.

By the time the first Anglo-Saxon American settlers reached Texas, the woods were full of cattle. They were called Criollo, or “Cattle of the country”.

The Texas longhorn is generally thought to have been created as a cross between this criollo stock and the English cattle brought to Texas in 1820’s and 1830’s by these first settlers. The wild black cattle eventually mixed with these strains and the result was the hybrid breed known as the Texas Longhorn.

Though, some historians disagree. These Andalusian cattle were immune to a disease referred to as “Spanish Fever,” “Texas Fever,” or “Cattle Tick Fever.” This disease, spread by a tick that longhorns often carried, was often fatal in other cattle. Therefore it is unlikely that no more than minor inbreeding occurred as most settlers kept their cattle close, away from the wild longhorns.

The longhorn had long legs and a long, limber tail, and he came in just about every color of the rainbow, perhaps most often some hue of red, brown or yellow, but there were also brindles, “gruyas” (grullas, mouse-colored), duns, blacks, whites, creams and every possible combination. An animal splotched with different colors was called a paint, and one with a line stripe down his back, which the old Texans often called a lobo (wolf) stripe.

Hardy, aggressive and adaptable, the Texas Longhorns were well suited to harshness of the ranges of the southwestern United States.

Longhorn cattle have a strong survival instinct and can find food and shelter during times of rough weather. Longhorn calves are very tough and can stand up sooner after birth and other breeds.

Running wild for nearly two hundred years had made the longhorn tough and hardy enough to withstand blizzards, droughts, dust storms, attacks by other animals, and Indians. They did not require great amounts of water to survive. Their horns served for attack and defense. A strong sense of smell made it easy to for the cow to find her calf and she would ferociously defend this calf.

There was probably no meaner creature in Texas than a Longhorn bull. The slightest provocation would turn him into an aggressive and dangerous enemy. The bull’s horns usually measured over eight feet long. In addition, the sharpness of horns of any length, the speed and muscle power of the bull, and the ease with which he could be aroused and enraged, made him a dangerous and uncontrollable animal. When two bulls met, there was sure to be a fight, often to the death. And only a very well-armed cowboy had a chance against a Longhorn bull.

Regardless of their color, Longhorns could run like deer, swim like a seal, and fight like a mountain lion; and to help them they had the most fantastic horns ever to grace the head of any bovine. Though probably the average spread wasn’t more than 4-5 feet, there were many that went 6-7 feet. For the most part the horns arched forward more or less, but they might grow in any fashion, like the handlebars of a bicycle, or with curve on curve, or even one horn up and one down.

At about the age of four or five, when the Longhorn was considered to be getting its full growth, though they did keep putting on weight for years longer, little wrinkles would begin to grow up from the bases of the horns. The older the steer got, the more the wrinkles would show, giving rise the term “mossy horns,” meaning old-timers. A full-grown young steer would weigh 800-900 pounds, while a fat old mossy horn might go as high as 1500 or more.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, and miners demanded beef, some of the first cattle drives on record took place, driving approximately 100,000 head of cattle west to California. After the Civil War, cattlemen of the Southwest discovered that you could drive a full-grown Texas Longhorn north and he’d put on weight grazing northern grass.

Eventually Shorthorn and Hereford stock were introduced to the Southwest to improve the beef quality, and Brahma cattle to produce animals more resistant to tick fever. The true Longhorn began to disappear. In 1920 funds were made available from Congress to save them. Forrest Service employees Will C. Barnes and John Hatton, armed with descriptions of the Longhorn “type”, inspected over 30,000 head of Texas cattle and assembled a herd of 20 cows, 3 bulls, 3 steers, and 4 calves. In 1927 the animals were shipped to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve.

These survivors became the foundation stock for a herd dedicated to preserving these great animals for posterity.


Foster-Harris, William. The Look of the Old West, New York, Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2007

Texas Longhorn Survivor of the Past-Bright Promise for the Future, by Dr. Stewart h Fowler, PhD

Texas State Historical Association-A Digital Gateway to Texas History, The handbook of Texas Online, Longhorn Cattle

Texas Longhorns: A history of Longhorn Cattle

Texas Longhorn Cattle-History of the Breed

California Association of Texas Longhorn Breeders, History of Longhorns in California, by Michael Casey

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, History of the Texas Longhorns

Photos Courtesy of Dickinson Cattle Co.


  1. Fun info on the Longhorn, Kathy. Are they any relation to the corriente cattle that so many ropers use for practice?

  2. Hi Paty,
    I have no idea. I didn't notice any mention of corriente cattle. Maybe I'll look it up.

  3. A vet neat us has a herd of longhorns. Their horns are ferocious appearing. Supposedly, their meat is lean with less cholesterol. To my knowledge, I haven't eaten it.

  4. Very interesting. Thanks for putting up the post.

    We saw some when holidaying in NMexico and visited Pala Duro Canyon across the border in Texas. I didn't realise they were longhorns peering at us through the bushes, just regular cattle, until they jumped back a bit skittish and their horns came into view. Why is it the camera is always in the bag at such times!

  5. Interesting to learn more about the cattle that helped win the West. Thanks for this great post!

    Mary Montague Sikes

  6. Hi Caroline,
    I've heard that too, that their meat is very lean. Is your neighbor part of the efforts to preserve the breeding of the herd?

  7. Linda,
    That's cool that you were able to see some up close. From what I've read, I guess they really thrived in the brush country. Fascinating the way they adapted to thrive in harsh enviornments. Sorry your camera wasn't available. :(

  8. Hi Monte,
    Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  9. Paty,
    I looked at a video on Corriente cattle, but they didn't say much about their breeding other than that they are not Longhorns. The video said they were bred for sport and are athletic and agile. I guess they love people and are very friendly. Like the Longhorn they are resistant to disease, easy calvers, and thrive in harsh enviornments.
    I hadn't heard of the breed, (surprisingly) so it was fun looking it up. :)

  10. Kathy, thanks for this wonderful info on Longhorns. I'm in the midwest and see herds occasionally. The neighbor had a longhorn calf for awhile that was too adorable. He belonged to her nephew.

  11. Hi Savanna,
    Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately I've never seen a Longhorn up close, so I think you are so lucky. The babies must be really cute, especially when their horns start to grow.

  12. Amazing, these Longhorns. I always loved the old movies featuring a cattle drive of longhorns. There was always a stampede, always someone gored to death...well, that wasn't fun, but the longhorn did provide fodder for many stories. I did not know there were that many breeds.

    A few years ago, our son, DIL, and three young grandsons came down from Michigan. He wanted to show his sons some Texas Longhorns. We thought and thought, knowing there were some around, and finally came up with a couple of places. That afternoon, after driving around in the country for hours, we had not found one Longhorn.

    So, back at our house, I suddenly remembered--a neighbor about 1/2 mile down the County Road we live on keeps longhorns in his fenced yard!
    We felt very stupid, but we all trooped down there so the boys could watch them. There are four, and when someone walks up to the fence, they never move..just stare at you.
    They scare me. Thanks for this post, Kathy. The photos added so much.

  13. Very interesting information. A friend of ours has a set of horns from a long horn hanging in his house that were his grandfather's, and they are truly massive.

  14. Kathy, he had his baby horns, which made him even cuter.

  15. I love this! What terrific information. I know I'll be checking back here when I need help.

    The Silver Spur ranch in Bandera TX, where The Wild Rose Press held a writing retreat, has a herd of these, and when they came running at it during our hay ride (they're semi-tame pets) it was thrilling. Those horns, my my. VERY impressive. The main bull was named Picasso due to his artsie spots LOL and there was a baby who looked like him. So cute.

  16. Hi Celia,
    Your story makes me want to come to your house so I can see some Longhorns too. I'm glad there are so many people and organizations dedicated to preserving the integrity of the breed.

  17. Lauri,
    That is really cool. With them being so old they are probably from original stock. Are they heavy? Makes me wonder how they held their heads up. At first I thought you were going to say they were on the hood of his car! LOL

  18. Savanna,
    Awww, a baby with baby horns, sounds adorable!

  19. Tanya,
    I'd love to see some Longhorns up close, especially after all the western movies I've seen. Maybe next time TWRP has a retreat there I'll have the money to go. Sounds like you all had a wonderful time!


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