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Listen: How Fort Worth’s iconic longhorn cattle drive came to be

A woman records a video of longhorn walking down the street on Nov. 26.
Cristian ArguetaSoto
Fort Worth Report
A woman records a video of longhorn walking down the street on Nov. 26.

Here's how the longhorn herd helps keep state history alive and what goes into making sure the animals are happy and healthy.

Kristin Jaworski, head of Fort Worth’s Texas Longhorn herd, spoke with the Fort Worth Report's government reporter Emily Wolf.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Emily Wolf: To get us started, would you mind talking a little bit about how you got started with The Herd and what the role of trail boss looks like?

Kristin Jaworski: So something that’s always hard to explain is what trail boss even means. And so, I love telling that story. Because it’s very unique, and I’m very proud to hold that title, because it represents the history and the authenticity of western heritage here in Fort Worth.

When the city of Fort Worth first established the Fort Worth Herd on June 12 of 1999, to celebrate Fort Worth’s 150th anniversary by driving a herd of Texas Longhorn cattle from downtown Fort Worth to their home here in historic Fort Worth stockyards, they were really, really concerned and focused on making sure that the program told a story of that history. And it really represented the period correctness and the diversity of everything that Fort Worth embraced from that Western heritage. Just after the Civil War, when longhorns were in South Texas and driven along the Chisholm Trail through Fort Worth, that time in history had such a huge impact on Fort Worth, that they really wanted to tell the story. So, the City Council and members of the community and stakeholders in this area got together and put together this herd of longhorns.

I think that we’re so blessed and so fortunate that we had historians and curators and City Council members, and also people in the longhorn community that donated their longhorns to the program to commemorate that time in history to share with people from all over the world.

Trail boss was the title in the late 1800s of the individual who orchestrated and coordinated these cattle drives. And then fast forward, several years, 130 years later, we’re still doing that today, well, more than 130 years.

Wolf: Would you mind walking me through what a day in the life of a trail boss looks like?

Jaworski: So, you have to replicate what a trail boss did in the late 1800s, which is a little bit different than what I do today. But based on the same management and leadership principles, the trail boss in the late 1800s would have been responsible for the cattle, the personnel, the finances and the business dealings. Same thing today. So today, my responsibilities are the day-to-day management of the entire operation, except in the 12th- largest city in America. And so rather than being out on a trail and a pasture grazing them as they made their way to the rail market, we are doing that cattle drive twice a day along East Exchange Avenue here in the historic Fort Worth stockyards for millions of people a year.

My responsibility on a day-to-day basis is to make sure first and foremost that we are prepared to present that twice-daily cattle drive to the public. And so that consists of making sure our livestock are attended to, making sure that our horses and our drovers, which are the cowboys and cowgirls that drive the cattle, are educated and prepared and skilled, because safety is paramount. It is so important that we are in an environment that is forever changing, for lack of a better word. There’s traffic and there’s all kinds of different elements. It may be the weather, it may be the environment that the public is putting on us. And so we have to be prepared from a safety perspective to be able to produce that. Then there’s an educational element. So we might be performing education programs for fourth grade students, or we might be performing an interview for the media to take our message to other areas in the country or even the world.

Wolf: And usually, when people see the cattle and the drivers and the horses, they’re seeing them for maybe 30 minutes or so watching them go down the path. But that’s not all that those animals do; they have a whole life outside of that. Would you mind talking a little bit more about what the life of a steer in the herd looks like, or any of the geldings or mares y’all use on the trail drive?

Jaworski: I love that you know the term steers, geldings and mares. So that in itself is something that we never take for granted. Just our terminology. I work with a lot of people in different industries that use acronyms. And so our first step is making sure that we don’t ever take for granted that our terminology is used that way. So a plus for you.

Wolf: Thank you, I was a barrel racer, once upon a time.

Jaworski: Oh, that’s great. That’s very helpful. So I don’t have to give you definitions of all of that. That’s great.

What’s so great about our longhorn steers is because they’re all donated from different ranches, all across the country. Each one of them has a very special story. And I am so fortunate to be able to select each one of them as they’re presented to me. And I love that, because it’s a relationship with the breeder and the donor. And then with the steer, as they transform from their pasture to their job here in the Fort Worth herd and then after their job once they retire, and to be able to stay with that family that donated the animal and that steer as they transition into retirement is pretty, pretty important and pretty special.

So something that we look forward to is working very closely with our program veterinarian, with our program farriers and then with stockmanship trainers as well. So the cattle-handling aspect of it and the horsemanship training is just huge and you being familiar with horsemanship, you completely understand what I’m talking about there. Unless you have the horsemanship skill, you don’t have the stockmanship. And if you don’t have the stockmanship, the horsemanship doesn’t do any good. And so all of that works hand in hand to be able to drive them down the street because we keep our longhorns as natural as possible.

As far as moving away from the pressure or the environment that they’re in, it puts them in a position to be able to be driven down the street, because they’re going to be on a predetermined path. Cattle are creatures of habit. And so we try to create a routine with the cattle and a routine with our horses, to create that very low-stress environment, which is safe for all of us. And so that works really, really well.

So those steers, they’re introduced to us and are selected on so many different levels of criteria. And I know that you’re excited to hear about that. We look at age, confirmation, color, horn pattern, disposition. And another thing that’s really important to me is where they come from. I’ve met the most beautiful people through these cattle. And, of course, that’s probably my most favorite part of this job, this program that Visit Fort Worth supports, is the relationships that we build throughout the years with longhorn breeders.

Wolf: We were talking earlier, y’all just had a new addition, Gus. Would you mind talking to me a little bit about how y’all ended up acquiring Gus, where he’s from and when folks can see him?

Jaworski: I think that these stories about these steers are very heartfelt. And so if we talk about ‘How did I meet the owner of the steer,’ usually, it is through word of mouth, or somebody such as yourself, who’s, maybe watched the cattle drive, learned about it and wants to know how they can make a difference and how they can contribute.

When we met the family of Gus, when you really hear how heartfelt these stories are, you will completely understand how I can’t say no, I just can’t say no. And, a lot of these steers have come from children. And it is a young man or a young lady who has shown this longhorn or raised the longhorn as a calf and knows of the Fort Worth herd cattle drive and knows that it is a prestigious job for that animal. And it’s an iconic program for their family brand or their ranch brand to be part of. And so many times I’ve had these students say, ‘Oh, I’m raising a steer, and eventually I would love for him to be part of the program.’ And that’s a goal. That’s really special. And so they’ve shown that animal, and the animal has reached the prime age to become a herd steer. And then I get that call that they’re ready to donate their show steer that they’ve loved, that they’ve shown, that they’re so attached to, that they want to donate it to the herd.

That was Gus’ story. As soon as I heard that, and that family wanted to donate Gus, his owner was so proud to present him to us. Now granted, he was just a 4-year-old steer, but a gigantic 4-year-old steer. And what was beautiful about him, as he applied for the job is on his resume, he had colors that we didn’t have. He had a horn pattern that was unique, but he had the disposition that was just so sweet, and so gentle, but not too gentle, he would still respect our horses and respect the drovers. And so, I absolutely said yes. And as soon as we have an opening in the herd, we do have a long list of applicants to be a steer in the herd.

The newest addition to The Herd, Texas Longhorn steer Gus.
The Herd
The newest addition to The Herd, Texas Longhorn steer Gus.

Wolf: And you mentioned these are not just livestock that have lived their lives on pasture, often they have a very close connection to their former owners. They’re going to shows all across the state, sometimes multiple states and building that connection. What does that mean to you as trail boss that you get to be the new caretaker of these steers that have clearly been well-loved?

Jaworski: That is a lot on my shoulders at times, knowing that they trust in me as their guardian of their steer. And I’m very proud of that. I know that they know that I’m going to take care of that animal as if it were my own. Probably one of my most favorite things is to update them periodically just out of the blue with a picture of that steer, or a cute snapshot of the kids out on the street watching him go down the street, in the cattle drive, or just something to surprise them with how great that steer is doing in the herd. That’s very touching to me. Or they’ll show up and surprise me to watch the cattle drive and they’ll bring their family. And it doesn’t matter if they’re from Illinois, if they’re from Florida, or if they’re from North Texas. They’ll stop by, and they’re so proud that that animal is part of the cattle drive. They want to know what he weighs. They want to know what his horn length is. They want to know if he’s being a good boy. And that’s just really important. It’s really special, because they’re telling all of their friends.

Each steer has a trading card, like a baseball card. And we’ve got on that trading card who donated that animal, what its horn length tip to tip is and a little story about that steer. And I think that’s our call to action. That is something that we pass out on the street and say, make sure you follow us on social media, make sure that you keep up with their favorite steer. We want them to keep up with that story. If Gus was your favorite steer, we want you to be able to follow that throughout his tenure here, because I think that that’s important. I think that each person has been able to choose a steer that they can relate to for whatever reason, and some of them that have been donated over the years will walk up to the fence and call their name. And they’ll perk up and I think they always recognize their owner. I really believe that because they have an attachment to them and a special bond that I couldn’t possibly relate to, but I promise I’ll take care of them.

Wolf: Obviously steers are an essential part of this, but you’ve also got your drovers and the horses that they rely on. Can you talk a little bit about the process for someone becoming a drover and what sort of training goes into that?

Jaworski: The drovers are instrumental to this program. So, the people are coming to see the herd because of the longhorns. Without the longhorns we wouldn’t have a position.

But the drovers, that’s who’s out there doing the work. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of summer, in the middle of winter raining, or the sun is shining. They’re out there being the caretakers of the animals, whether it’s the livestock, the cattle or the horses, cleaning their pens, feeding, and making sure that everything is taken care of, making sure the facility is in working order.

Something that the drovers accomplished this year that’s really impressive, Emily, is we belong to the Certified Horsemanship Association, and we were the first facility in entertainment to be site accredited as a horses-in-entertainment facility. That’s a really big accomplishment for us. So what that means is we achieved site standards, equine standards and program standards in the equestrian world. And for us to be certified as an accredited site was a really big deal. And it took the drovers coming together and making that happen. So there were a lot of policies and procedures for them to review. What it takes to be a drover is having to adhere to all of those site accreditation program standards.

And to be someone who knows how to ride a horse, can practice good stockmanship, but most importantly, have the public relations skills to talk and educate our guests and want to visit with people. I think that is why we’re here. We can never lose sight of that. It’s talking to the people, and the horses and the cattle are our tools to do that. Because that enables us to have something to offer as an experience. And we certainly wouldn’t have that attraction if we didn’t have that. I like to refer to us as a visitor center on horseback because people come to visit. And we’re the information to give them.

Wolf: I feel like when people think about Texas, they think of longhorns, bluebonnets and quarter horses. Can you talk a little bit about where you get your horses from?

Jaworski: Horses are difficult. Horses are one of the most difficult things that I have to purchase. So I am responsible for purchasing everything that we need to make this program work. And horses are by far the most difficult.

If anybody has ever ridden a solid, safe horse, or even participated in creating a nice, reliable, safe horse, they know it takes a lot of consistency and a lot of work and a lot of patience. And in our environment that is absolutely a requirement. So we take our time, and we’re not doing anything quick. And here in the stockyards, our job is to visit with people and then also move the longhorns down the street. So we’ve got to have a horse that just is really, really calm and very understanding.

We do have geldings and mares. I’m not particular on size, color, gender, breed, any of that. It’s more about what’s between the ears and how that animal is put together to be able to be sound, and I care more about that animal’s overall health and mental state than anything else. We do have quarter horses, paint horses, from both breed associations. But first and foremost, it’s about having a nice, sound, quality animal.

Wolf: Sure, making sure it won’t spook at a plastic bag is more important than whether it’s a dun.

Jaworski: Yes, ma’am. And we do a lot of desensitizing training to know what our horses are going to react to and how they’re going to have that reaction. And we work very, very closely with different professionals in the equine industry to make sure that we’re prepared to not put too much stress on them.

Wolf: What does the introduction process look like when you get the new steer?

aThe introduction of a new steer varies on the actual animal. The steers have a pecking order like any herd or grazing animal. With our herd, we will give them just as much time as possible for them to work their way into the herd.

And we want the new steer to acclimate with an older, more tenured steer, just like you would if you were going off to college. You’d find a friend to buddy up with to show you around the place. And we do the same thing here with the steers. We want the new steer to find a friend. And so as we work through that, then we’ll slowly introduce him.

After he has been introduced to the herd, we introduce him to the horses. And we do that after we’ve worked him on foot, then we work him on horseback. And all I mean by that is we’re simply just moving him around the pen a little bit on horseback. And again, all of this is just so slow. So it takes a long, long time. It can take up to 90 to 120 days before we’re truly moving him across the parking lot with the herd. And sometimes up to three to four months before we’re taking them down the street, because it’s a lot of new environments. And I work very closely with Dr. Temple Grandin. And she always says the first experience for any animal is the most important. So we always want their first experience to be very positive.