As Bob Dube dropped off his Texas longhorn at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, he noticed the educational sign near its stall and proclaimed it incorrect. Seven feet? Wrong, he said: That is not the biggest spread a longhorn can have.
Not anymore, anyway. Longhorn cattle, in Texas bigger-is-better fashion, are being bred for longer horns. These days, seven feet is merely impressive, not at all the upper limit. In October 2014, a longhorn earned the Guinness World Record for longest horn spread on a steer with a measurement of nearly 10 feet.
"They just kind of keep getting bigger all the time," Dube told the Houston Chronicle.
These days, longhorns are raised as Texas icons. Joshua Specht, a historian of cattle ranching and beef production, is a lecturer at Monash University in Australia, and has studied the breed. "Now, it's a historical showpiece, I think, a lot more than anything else," he says.
And as a showpiece, longhorns have become, well, more longhorn-ish than they used to be. They're now bred partly for their overall look, with emphasis on traits such as horn width, coloring and muscling. Their horns have become longer, and their bodies are heavier.
"Everything about the way they looked back then," says Specht, "has been taken to the extreme."
By that, he means the Old West period of cowboys and trail drives, the years roughly between 1866 and 1886. It's Texas' mythic era, the one that informs the state's idea of itself: wild and free, tough and stubborn.
That describes longhorns, too. In the words of folklorist J. Frank Dobie, the breed's literary champion, they were "iron-sinewed, wild-living cattle, creatures primordially harmonized to a nature that they at times defied."
Longhorns were feral descendants of escaped Spanish cattle, and after the Civil War, they roamed Texas' wide-open spaces in large numbers, an easy source of meat for dirt-poor hunters. "Cattle were so plentiful and capital so utterly lacking," wrote Dobie, "... they could not be sold for a dollar apiece."
Cattle were worth far more up north, and cowboys began driving herds of thousands for hundreds of miles, toward stops on the new railroads, where they could be sold. Many breeds wouldn't have survived the journey. Longhorns did.
"Longhorns were the original cash cow," says Joe Paschal, a Corpus Christi-based livestock specialist with Texas A&M University's AgriLife Extension.
But their dominance didn't last long. Once railways and barbed wire crisscrossed the West, the breed was discarded in favor of other meat options, and the open range it once roamed had disappeared. By the 1920s, longhorns were closer to extinction than the buffalo. In 1927, in an attempt to save them, federal forest rangers assembled a herd in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.
Dobie, the folklorist, campaigned to preserve the breed, largely on sentimental grounds. In his 1941 book The Longhorns, he credited the wiry cattle with making Texas possible. Longhorns, he wrote, "generated cowboys, brought ranches into existence, gave character to the grazing world of America, and furnished material for political economy."
The breed came back, of course, and these days, nothing telegraphs "Texas" like a longhorn. Their horns grace barbecue joints, steakhouses and Texas-themed bars; their skulls are wired to the front of Hotel Zaza's hotel shuttles. Bevo, the University of Texas mascot, inspired many alumni to purchase their own longhorns. For people with a few acres, the cattle often serve as living yard art.
Specht, the cattle historian, notes that longhorns are often celebrated in a way that's not entirely true to their history. People view them as emblems of independence, of a time free of big business or government interference. Yet the rise and fall of longhorns, he says, resulted directly from business decisions.
These days, longhorns sell for a lot more than a dollar apiece. They generally cost anywhere from hundreds of dollars to more than $100,000, says Rick Fritsche, who registers the cattle with the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America. Dube, at the livestock show, said he knew of a breeder who turned down a quarter of a million dollars for a longhorn.
Sometimes big horns earn big checks, Fritsche says, but other factors are often more important — things such as cattle market values, pedigree, color and disposition.
Today's longhorns lead more comfortable lives than their ancestors. They're protected and strategically bred, not left to natural selection. They're fenced in. They receive vaccines and medication, and their nutrition has improved. Show longhorns are particularly pampered.
Have they gone soft?
"We did modify the environment of these cattle a lot," says Paschal.
Still, Paschal and other experts insist that longhorns remain hearty enough to survive in a world untouched by humans. "I don't think that we've bred all the heartiness out of them," he says. "I think it's still there."
Fritsche, with the breeders' association, said longhorns haven't taken this evolutionary journey alone. Humans have likewise become healthier and less rugged.
"We're not as survival-ready as we were 1,000 years ago," he said. "I think it's normal evolution that the animals are not."
People now raise longhorns for lots of reasons, he says, including their meat or unique personalities. They're good parents and have easy calving. And they're beautiful to look at, each one with unique coloring.
"Some breeders could care less that they have longer and longer horns," he said.
At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the longhorns were young and old, male and female. Some had small-ish horns; others spanned eight feet.
The big guys competed in the trophy steer category. (Steers, not bulls: After castration, males' horns grow longer.) These cattle were beautifully colored, with whites, browns and blacks blended together. They carried their thick, lengthy racks gracefully. Sometimes they chased each other around the arena and intertwined their horns.
The grand champion was a hulking longhorn named Tanner's New Friend, nearly 13 years old. At his shoulders, he measures at least 5'6" tall, and he weighs about 1,900 pounds. His body is white with reddish spots. Shaquille O'Neal could lie between his eight-foot horns and feel short.
"He's definitely eye-catching," said Beth Tanner of Stephenville. Her son owns the steer.
Dube, who was displaying his steer at the AgVenture educational area, had entered Awww Dude in the trophy steer competition. The three-year-old is speckled white, tan, dark brown and black. His horns span about six feet, and they'll probably keep growing.
Recently Dube started to ride Awww Dude like a horse; it's a fairly common thing to do. "People get a big enjoyment out of seeing somebody ride a longhorn," Dube said.
"They were the first cattle here in the state of Texas," he said, "and everybody likes the Western heritage of them."