Former NCHA Executive Committee member Don Strain, 83, of White River, South Dakota, passed away July 8 after a long battle with cancer. Strain was inducted into the NCHA Members Hall of Fame in 2006.
Don’s father, Eugene, who later received South Dakota’s Eminent Farmer Award, was one of the first to irrigate from the Little White River, bringing a new type of agriculture to the area.
Strain got his first job at the age of 12, riding colts and checking cattle. His dad had about 20 ranch horses and when Don was a junior in high school, they made a deal that he could have one of the horses if he handled the paperwork with AQHA. That got him started on the path to becoming a 50-year Legacy Breeder of American Quarter Horses.
Don learned cowboying from old-timers who had worked the big herds of the late 19th Century. He appeared in Life Magazine in 1962, helping drive 1,800 head of cattle through a blizzard and over the frozen Big White River.
In his early 20s, Strain caught the cutting bug when he saw his first cutting horse at the Denver Stock Show. He saw an ad for NCHA World Champion Phil Williams in Western Horseman, and sent him a mare to train.
That mare didn’t work out, but Williams offered him a Houston Livestock Show champion named Dun Gone for $1,000.
“That was the first really good cutting horse that I had been on,” Strain said. “When I got off that horse, the insides of my legs were raw. I was 22 years old and didn’t have a lick of sense and less money.”
Within two months, he’d won nearly $1,000 on Dun Gone, and sent Williams a check. But not long after that, Dun Gone died, and Williams offered him 1952 NCHA World Champion Little Tom W for $5,000. Strain borrowed the money and began a successful campaign with the horse. He recalled hauling Little Tom W to 39 shows in 1959, earning 33 checks. He owned Little Tom W until the horse died at age 32.
Don Strain won his first NCHA buckle in 1956, and his most recent one came in 2015. Over the years, he competed at every level, from weekend shows to limited age events, and was a show producer, affiliate president, and a $1 million breeder. He judged every major AQHA show at least once, and judged in Europe several times. Throughout it all, he remained true to the grassroots cutter.
“I firmly believe that the future and success of our organization lies with the grassroots cutters and their support group – volunteer secretaries, cattle handlers, ground workers, panel movers – all the people who produce the cuttings across the United States and Canada.
“The success of weekend cuttings can only lead to more and bigger aged events and an increase in demand and price for our horses.”
Strain became an NCHA Director for South Dakota in 1960, and helped to establish the South Dakota CHA. He became an NCHA and AQHA judge in 1962. He served on several NCHA committees through the years, including the Judges Rules, Open Show and Long Range Planning committees. He served six years on the Executive Committee, from 1999-2005.
“Don was an icon to our sport,” said long-time friend Tracy Barton. “He believed with all his heart that he would make cutting better, and he accomplished that goal.”
When visitors would mention how beautiful his ranch is, he would reply “the good Lord made it this way. I just try to keep it nice”.
Don is survived by his wife Kathy, his three sons, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren plus a very large extended family.