Horseback riding on South Dakota’s Strain Ranch means having big-hearted horses.
It all started when a rancher west of White River, South Dakota, died and left behind a string of American Quarter Horses. In the estate shuffle between the bank and the man’s two families, the papers proving those horses were registered with that new breed association in Texas disappeared.
Regardless, Don Strain’s father bought about 20 head of them to use on his ranch just north of town. Don was a junior in high school when his dad made him an offer: If Don would get the papers on those horses, he’d give him one of them. So Don convinced AQHA to send an inspector to the Strain Ranch deep in the Sioux reservation country along the Little White River east of the Badlands. Three approved mares later, he was in the Quarter Horse business.
Little did Don know he was also on his way to becoming an AQHA 50-year breeder, a respected AQHA and National Cutting Horse Association judge, and a member of the NCHA executive board. He was inducted into the NCHA Member Hall of Fame in 2007.
No, Don just thought he’d try to make a cutting horse out of that mare, a palomino, “who unfortunately had no more cow than anything, was hard-headed and pretty as a picture.” Though she didn’t work out, there would be plenty to come who did.
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A Cattle Operation With Benefits
“This is a cattle operation; we also raise horses,” Don says from the hilltop overlooking the horse barn, tank pond, alfalfa fields and the main house he shares with Kathy, his wife of 37 years. Cottonwoods trace the Little White River farther off, and Black Angus cows dot the upper pastures.
Don grew up in this rolling, wide country; he learned to cowboy from men who’d known the “big herd” days of the late 1800s. It is hard country, bitter cold in the winter – Don and a few friends made the January 19, 1962, issue of Life when they drove 1,800 head of rancher Don Hight’s cattle several days west through a blizzard and over a frozen “Big” White River. But the pastures produce good grass if managed well and the annual 15 inches of rain hit right, and the Little White River is good irrigation for feed crops. After time in the service during the Korean War, Don returned home to ranch alongside his dad.
From the beginning, Don set out to raise horses for ranch work; any buckles they might win would be icing on the cake. He’d always cowboyed and rodeoed some and did pretty good roping and riding broncs, but he’d seen cutting at the National Western Stock Show and wanted to try it.
He wrote a letter to NCHA champion cutting trainer Phil Williams, asking him if he would train a palomino mare. Phil did and wrote back that the mare wasn’t working out. Don drove down to Texas to get her and went home with a buckskin that Phil priced at a bargain $1,000 because Dun Gone could be a little broncy. No cowboy from South Dakota would be concerned with that.
“I took him and won four straight cuttings, and I didn’t know anything!” Don says. “I’d only seen it in Denver.”
The run of luck didn’t last long – the horse suddenly dropped dead after cutting his second cow, right in the middle of a go-round.
But Phil and Don became good friends, and eventually Phil sold Don the great Little Tom Wing, better known as “Little Tom W,” Phil’s 1952 NCHA open world champion. Don borrowed the $5,000 to buy the gelding.
“I’ve been broke ever since,” he says with a smile. “I showed him 39 times one year and took home 33 checks.” Don had Little Tom W until the horse died at 32.
Judging Good Little Horses
At the upper end of a long, sloping draw looking west, Don shakes a bucket of grain and calls out in a deep voice, “Come on!” Horse periscopes pop up in the distance, and soon a small herd floods up the draw, through the deep western wheat and buffalo grass.
Don scatters the grain and walks through them: a uniform herd that you could line up in any order and not be wrong.
“I never did like a big horse,” he says. “No more than 15 hands. If he’s 15.1 and athletic, I like him, but a 15.2 horse is not my kind of horse. I like a nice hip and slope to the pastern and shoulder.
“I have a really good-withered band, and when I was judging, that was one of my top priorities – I really didn’t like a mutton-withered horse you couldn’t keep a saddle on. And the more I rode, the more I thought a balanced neck was a little more important than I thought as a young man. I don’t like a long-backed horse.”
Don became a judge by chance when he mistakenly walked into a South Dakota Quarter Horse Association directors meeting and someone pointed him out, saying he’d be a good judge. At an early gig in Billings, Montana, the show secretary’s comment on seeing him was “You’re just a kid!”
He “tried never to second-guess” himself, and quit taking breed association magazines so he wouldn’t be influenced by knowing who a horse was: “I used what I liked, and I didn’t read any advertisements.” He chuckles remembering one show volunteer who abandoned him to find his own way back to the airport after Don didn’t use the volunteer’s horse in his lineup.
In 39 years as an AQHA judge, Don judged every major show in the United States and Canada at least once (including AQHA world championship shows) and went to Europe several times. One year, he turned down 40 shows but still judged 30, on top of running the ranch.
“If you were an AQHA judge, you were good enough to judge anything, and that’s what I liked about it,” he says.
It also gave him an opportunity to see the kind of blood he wanted in his breeding program: “Doc Bar changed the industry because every horse he put on the ground that I saw was an athlete,” Don says. “The horse I’d put next to him was Smart Little Lena.”
Every evening they can, the Strains saddle up to work horses after Kathy finishes duties as the U.S. postmaster in White River. Their arena is up on a rise where it catches every last bit of evening light.
“The only horses I remember us buying were a few stallions and a couple of mares,” Kathy says. “Everything else we ride, we raise.”
Don credits Kathy with being the brains of their bloodline operation. Originally from Rapid City, she grew up riding at her grandfather’s hobby farm and showed with her parents’ encouragement.
“We’re not selling baby colts or trying to,” she continues. “When Don was younger, he would start our 2-year-olds and maybe ride them 45 days and start them on cattle. Then we started having other people break them.”
Shannon Hall, NCHA Hall of Fame rider and open Futurity winner, has trained many horses for the Strains.
“Shannon has been a big part of our success,” Don says, “A big part!”
“We try to figure out which ones have this or that – willingness, cowiness, athletic ability – sort them out and go on with some or sell them,” Kathy says. “They aren’t all going to be competition cutting horses, but they can be rope horses or reiners, just about anything. A nice athletic horse can do a lot of things.”
She adds, “We just raise them outside, in the ranch environment.”
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The first stallions Don owned were ranch-bred, such as Cane River Buck, a 1957 buckskin by Cowboy’s Breezy out of the Triangle Boy mare Tee Boy’s Hazel, bred by the Muleshoe Cattle Co. of Wichita Falls, Texas.
When the Strains decided to bring more of the cutting lines into their horses, they sent Snookie’s Baby by Hollywood Joey to multiple NCHA and AQHA world champion Peponita by Peppy San. The result was their longtime herd stallion Poppin Peponita.
“Most of our broodmares are by Poppin Peponita,” Kathy says. “The mares are very cowy and have a big stop, are tough and gritty. We’ve also had three different sons of Smart Little Lena, and it has been a great cross.”
Case in point: Sneakin Sam, aka “Sam,” Kathy’s current homebred superstar, is a 1997 son of Sneakin Lena by Smart Little Lena and out of Smoothly Poppin by Poppin Peponita.
The horse has earned more than $180,414 in NCHA competition, including winning the non-pro championship at the 2010 NCHA Western Nationals.
Oddly enough, all three of their Smart Little Lena stallions – King Smart, Lenas Loaded Gun and Sneakin Lena – died at a young age.
“Now, since we’re getting a little older, we decided we wouldn’t get a young stallion and would breed to other studs we like for a few years,” Kathy says with a smile and steps up on Sam. “The stallion thing is a pretty long-term commitment.”
The Strains haul whenever they can, participating in state futurities in Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota in addition to NCHA events. They’ve had a couple of NCHA Futurity finalists, too.
And in the past few years, they’ve enjoyed watching their grandchildren compete more and more. They have nine total, ages 9 to 32.
Down in the trees near the river sits the home where Don lived as a child; his parents were children of homesteaders in the area. In later years, Don and his first wife, Janet, and their four children, Kirk, Alicia, Craig and Bret, lived in the same house. Cancer took Janet’s life at 36, leaving Don to ranch as a single father for four years. In 1974, he married Kathy and moved her into their current home, a house he built himself in 1973.
Many evenings, Don and Kathy are joined in the practice arena by Bret and his oldest daughter, Bonnie, who also cut. Bret ranches with Don, and he and wife Gina live in a house one hill over. Alicia died of cancer. Kirk lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and Craig is in Fort Worth, Texas.
Don and Kathy received an AQHA 50-year breeder award in 2009. When you look at the numbers their operation has produced, averaging fewer than six foals per year, it’s impressive: they’ve raised 272 foals, to date, with just under $1 million in NCHA earnings in the AQHA memberships of Don Strain, Kathleen Strain and Don and Kathleen Strain, combined. At one point, three of the Strains’ stallions were on the list of top 100 leading sires of NCHA money-earners at the same time.
The goal in what they want to produce remains unchanged: “It all comes down to the pleasure of having a nice horse for whatever you’re doing with it,” Kathy says.
It’s Always a Good Day to Ride
Don never tires of riding up to the hilltop and looking out over the ranch.
The river and land it cuts through is full of stories: the legendary government roundup of 1902; Don’s friend Fred Turning Bear, who earned a Silver Star in World War II; the day his dad changed the river’s course with a bulldozer; the wooden coffee table trophy case Bret hand-built for him; the first buckle Kathy earned with a Strain-bred horse; or waiting three hours for his fingers to thaw enough to unbuckle his chaps.
“There never was a day in my life that I didn’t wake up looking forward to that day,” he says finally.
Don picks up his hand, his reins held in a style that old friend and mentor Don Dodge taught him, and grins. “Let’s go cut.”