Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Posted on Thu, Jan. 22, 2004

Taken by the horns

17-year-old finds she has a knack for showing cattle

By Punch Shaw
Special to the Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH - Laura Harding tends to stand out in her Texas longhorn classes, for a lot of reasons.

For one thing, the 17-year-old from College Station handles her stock well -- as the ribbons she collected in various classes at the Fort Worth Stock Show on Wednesday clearly attest.

"I cannot believe how much she has improved in her showmanship," said Jim Williams, who judged all of Wednesday's Texas longhorn youth classes.

"When she first started showing [four years ago], she put forth a lot of effort but was not able to show as well as some of the other kids. Now she can compete with the best of them."

She also draws attention because, at 4-foot-7, she is a bit shorter than many of her competitors -- although the sight of a 100-pound youngster wrestling with a half-ton steer is not unusual at the Stock Show.

And finally, and perhaps least importantly, Harding is the only one in her class who was born with Down syndrome.

"I watched her walk into that herd of longhorn cattle," said Harding's mother, Tammy Tiner, remembering Harding's first exposure to the cattle at the ranch of a family friend, "and I couldn't believe it. Even around all those horns, she never flinched. She took to them right away."

This positive first encounter led to a bold idea for a child with Down syndrome -- get her a calf of her own.

The Texas Longhorns Breeders Association of America donated a heifer for Harding to raise in 1998. When she was ready to show, she was an immediate success with the young female she named Starlight Express.

"Cattle do respond to her," Tiner said. "She's a natural."

In 1999, the Texas Longhorn Breeders of Tomorrow named her Newcomer of the Year.

"The best part about working with the cattle is showing them," said Harding, who also enjoys listening to CDs by her favorite singer, LeAnn Rimes. "But feeding them and working them is hard work."

Harding did not stop with that one heifer. She now owns 15 longhorns. Her favorite is a heifer named Cream Puff.

"I like her because she likes to be petted. But she hates my mom," Harding said.

Her parents think the experience of showing cattle has been positive.

"This is something she is good at in her own right. It gives her something to do that she can do as well as the other kids," Tiner said. "She names her cattle. She makes decisions about breeding. She is a longhorn breeder. It has been a life-changing experience for her."

And, it should be emphasized, everything that Harding has achieved in the show ring has been earned. There are no sympathy votes in a longhorn show.

"I've never given her anything," said Williams, as several show circuit veterans around him nodded their heads in agreement. "She is outstanding."

Harding's venture into the world of show cattle has also had a life-altering impact on her parents. It has reconnected these two college professors with their pasts.

"I had grown up with 4-H," her father, Kenn Harding, said. "But I left it behind when I went to college."

As for Laura Harding's mother, she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Henry Polley, who came to Texas with the settlers who arrived with Stephen F. Austin. He ran thousands of head of longhorns on several large Texas ranches before being wiped out by bad weather and a bad economy after the Civil War.

Now, Tiner and Kenn Harding, who are on the chemistry faculty at Texas A&M University, have a ranch stocked with registered longhorns. And Kenn Harding has followed his daughter into the show ring.

"It has become a family thing," said Kenn Harding, as the family shared the glamour of cleaning their stalls in a Stock Show barn.

And, without intending it, their efforts in the show ring have become something of an inspiration for those around them.

"I think she is a great example," Williams said. "It just shows what you can do when you have the desire, determination and dedication to do something. Did you see her when she got that blue ribbon? That put a spring in her step. She was dancing on air."

At that moment, pretty much everybody in the arena felt the same way.

Laura Harding is congratulated after placing in the longhorn showmanship class with Red River. Born with Down syndrome, Harding surprised her mother by taking to cattle at first exposure.

Laura Harding, 17, of College Station prepares to show her longhorn Red River on Wednesday at the Stock Show.