The Florida Cracker Horse
Learn about the Florida Cracker Horse, Florida State's Heritage Horse and an undiscovered jewel.
by Karen Prell
Since this year of 2013 marks the 500th birthday of the naming of the state of Florida by the Spanish explorers who landed here, I thought I appropriate to introduce you all to a native Florida breed that also got its start all those years ago. Let me introduce you to the Florida Cracker Horse.
More people than not have ever heard of the Florida Cracker Horse, but over time they have been known by many other names you may have heard. Names such as Chickasaw Pony, Seminole Pony, Marsh Tackie, Prairie Pony, Florida Horse, Florida Cow Pony have all been used to describe this endangered American breed. And yes, I say American breed because after being in this country for 500 years, I think they qualify as officially being one of our own.
The Florida Cracker Horse is an endangered breed.
Florida Cracker Horse Breed History
The Florida Cracker Horse came to our shores with the Spanish explorers who landed in Florida back in the 1500’s and their ancestry naturally traces to the Iberian horses that originated in 16th century Spain. The North African Barb, Spanish Sorraia and Spanish Jennet (a gaited breed) all contributed their share to the genetic make up of the breed. Genetically speaking, the Florida Cracker Horse is related to the Spanish Mustang, Paso Fino and other breeds developed and introduced by the Spanish to the New World.
When the Spanish who brought them here went back to their homelands and left behind the horses and cattle they had brought with them, the Florida Cracker Horse was left to survive and evolve in answer to the tough way of life this new land presented to them. They did survive and evolve into the agile, tough, talented horse we have today. By the late 18th century, thousands of these Cracker horses roamed free in the territory that was Florida.
Cracker Horses are willing to work hard and have great stamina and endurance.
In the early 1800’s when the first of Florida’s pioneering families began establishing ranches, they recognized the value of these wild horses and began to catch and utilize them as partners in establishing their ranches. It is from the long whips these early “cowboys” used to crack to guide the cattle that the Florida Cracker Horse gets its name.
To give you some idea of the scope of the cattle ranching industry in the state at that time, in a 10 year period from about 1868, the ranches of the state exported over 1.6 million cattle from our ports, making Florida the leading exporter in the entire United States–– and the ranches all depended on the Florida Horse to help get their product to market.
There's a Florida Cracker Trail that runs from just east of Bradenton, and ends in Fort Pierce, a total distance of approximately 120 miles.
Florida has always been “cattle country” and long before the American Quarter Horse was even a breed, the Florida Cracker Horse has been an extraordinary cow horse. The landscape of the state in the early days was not what you would expect for cattle ranching, but then the cattle were the equally tough Florida Cracker cattle. More lean and able to get around in the scrubby, overgrown country that was Florida, it took a special kind of horse to be able to deal with the half wild cattle of that era. Not only were these horses agile, tough and cattle-smart, they are also a comfortable ride as well. That is a quality of prime importance when you spend long days in the saddle tending to large areas of cattle in the wildness that was Florida.
The Winds of Change
Around the 1930’s as a result of the Depression the government in its quest to “help” folks, created a “relief” program to ship cattle from the Dust Bowl areas of the West into the state of Florida. As often happens with the introduction of a “non native” species into a new area, these new cattle brought with them something Florida cattlemen had not had to deal with before in the introduction of the screwworm and tick. Once that happened, the methods of previously dealing with the husbandry of cattle had to change to include fencing and dipping cattle to try to contain this invasive bug.
Solid colors and grays are the most common colors of these horses.
Unfortunately for our friend the Cracker horse, these new cattle and new methods required a stronger, larger horse to rope and hold the cattle for treatment. So, another new transplant came to Florida to deal with the newly created problems… the American Quarter Horse.
With the arrival of the Quarter Horse, the demand for the very horse that had helped build the Florida cattle industry started to wane and the Florida Cracker Horse started to become a rare thing indeed. While best known for their talents at working cattle, Cracker horses frequently saw service as the family buggy horse, and regular work stock. In many cases this was the only horsepower for a lot of Florida family farms well into the twentieth century. Despite its versatility and years of loyal service, no one realized the breed was marching towards extinction.
Fortunately for the Cracker horses, there were some Florida ranching families who were not about to give up on this tough little horse that helped them build the cattle industry and gave them a heritage to pass on to the next generation. With the foresight and continued breeding by these ranchers, the Cracker horse continued on to this century and fittingly was named the “official” heritage horse for the state of Florida in 2008. This was all due to the small but loyal owners and breeders of this little known “work horse” of Florida.
Now that you have an idea of the long and important history of this breed, let me get you better acquainted with this delightful breed.
The breed's survival is attributed to just a few families who continued to breed Cracker Horses for their own use over the last 50 years.
Florida Cracker Horse Characteristics
The Florida Cracker Horse is a medium size and stands from 13.2 to 15.2 as measured at the withers and weighs roughly 700 to 1,000 lbs. Their head is refined and intelligent, looking with a profile that is straight or slightly concave, with a short well defined jaw. Eyes are generally dark with keen alert expression and a reasonable width between them.
This breed does not exhibit the “cresty” appearance in their neck as is noted with some breeds of Spanish descent and actually is fairly narrow and the same length as the distance from withers to croup.
The withers are pronounced but not prominent. Their shoulders are long and sloping and should be well laid back with smooth muscling. As would be expected of any breed with the Spanish Barn in its ancestry, the back is short with well sprung ribs. Overall, the build of the Cracker horse makes it ideal for weight carrying ability and doing its job all day long. The bonus of this breed is that is comes in pretty much any color you can imagine, with solid colors and grey being prevalent.
The Florida Cracker Horse Association (FCHA) was organized in 1989 to search for the remnant herds of Cracker Horses.
But, all of this tells you what the Florida Cracker Horse might look like, but as anyone who has ridden one will tell you, to truly appreciate this breed you have to step on up into the saddle and ride one!
The gaits of the Cracker horse are ground covering, as you would expect from a breed that had to cover vast distances as part of its daily work. In those gaits are some real comforts for their riders. The Cracker horse includes in its locomotive talents the flat footed walk, running walk, trot and ambling gait. All of this is accomplished with no special shoeing and more often than not–– barefooted.
In addition to being used as working cow horses you can find Cracker horses being used for everything from trail, pleasure, team penning, team roping, and pulling wagons to playing polo. The same horse can be used by dad to work cattle and turn around and be used by the kids for whatever games they might be eager to play.
Florida Cracker horses are versatile-- great for family trail rides or equestrian sport pursuits.
Through the care and watchful stewardship of the Florida Cracker Horse Association and the state of Florida, we are lucky to have these living pieces of history around today not only to see but to ride and enjoy.
If you’d like to know more about the horses, the breeders and the association please check out the website at floridacrackerhorses.com. Their site has information on breeders, horses for sale and upcoming events showcasing the Florida Cracker Horse.
If you are planning a vacation visit to Florida during our 500th anniversary celebrations this year, please give yourselves a treat and check out the Florida Cracker Horses up close and personal. Go test ride one, you’ll get to see a part of the “real” Florida and ride a horse who was responsible for getting us here. Who knows you may end up taking home a REAL piece of history for yourself.
About the Author: Karen Prell, aka "Triple Crown Karen," came from a very non-horsey, working class New Jersey family and started riding at age three. With over 30 years experience as a riding instructor, Karen is passionate about developing beginners into confident riders and compassionate horse owners. A favorite expression heard often by her students is "It's ALL about the horse!" A lover of all things "horse," she is especially passionate about promoting the retraining of retired Thoroughbreds and adoption and rehoming of unwanted horses. Her ultimate dream would be to see the US Equestrian Team mounted on these great reclaimed athletes. Her career in media focuses on the everyday equestrian adventure and how a horse lover of modest means CAN make a difference for even ONE horse.