One of the rarest of all the North American breeds descended from the historical Spanish jennet, the Florida Cracker Horse has survived thanks to the dedicated efforts of a small group of cattle ranchers.

Northern Florida was once an agriculturally rich area with some of the biggest cattle ranches in the country. When the word “cowboy” comes up, most of us think of the type found in Texas and other western states — men who round up livestock on big, muscled Quarter Horses and use lariats to catch and handle cattle.

Florida Cracker Horse

A Florida Cracker Horse doing an ambling gait. Photo courtesy of the Florida Cracker Horse Association

The Florida ranchers and their livestock were different. Their cattle were smaller and feral, the product of Spanish stock that escaped and adapted to surviving in the wild. The cattle were skittish and wily, so local “cowmen” used big whips and cracked them to drive the cattle around, earning the nickname “Florida cracker” for both horse and rider. They didn’t use lariats to catch and hold the cattle, so their horses were smaller and more agile.

The cowmen chose horses descended from Spanish stock first brought to the Americas by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s. They tended to be small, narrow, and wiry animals that, like the feral cattle, were toughened by the local environment. They often inherited gaitedness from their ancestors, which enabled them to do a comfortable running walk and amble in addition to the other basic gaits.

Florida Cracker Horse

The Cracker Horse still has many physical traits from the historical Spanish jennet that first came to Florida almost 500 years ago. Photo courtesy of the Florida Cracker Horse Association

Today’s Florida Cracker Horse stands 13 to 15.2 hands tall and weighs in at 700 to 1,000 pounds. They display many characteristics of their jennet background — a straight or undulating profile, a sloping croup and low set tail, tough legs, small size, and ambling gait. They mostly come in solid colors like bay, chestnut, black, and grey, with a few individuals displaying the dun gene. Cracker Horses are smart, fast horses that can carry an average adult man over tough ground all day.

The Cracker Horse is listed as having “critical” status with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and is considered to have fewer than 300 breeding females in existence. The reason for the breed’s decline in numbers is due to changes in cattle ranching.

Florida Cracker Horse

A Seminole cowman on a Florida Cracker Horse in 1949. Photo from the State Library and Archives of Florida.

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, many cattle were driven from blighted areas into Florida, bringing the parasitic screwworm with them. This required ranchers to treat the cattle for the parasite, and to do this, they had to rope and hold each cow. The smaller Cracker Horse was simply not heavy enough to hold the bigger cattle. Florida cowmen began turning to the American Quarter Horse for its bulk and brute strength.

Nowadays, cattle ranchers are becoming rarer in Northern Florida as large tracts of land are being sold and developed. Renewed interest in preserving this part of Florida’s history has also helped increase the number of Cracker Horses.

A few families dedicated to the Cracker Horse and early Florida history began working cooperatively with the state to save the breed in the 1980s. The Florida Cracker Horse Association and registry were formed and in 2008 the state of Florida named the Cracker Horse its official breed of horse.

For more information about the Florida Cracker Horse, visit the Florida Cracker Horse Association. Watch this fun short video below of Florida Cracker Horses picking up dropped ropes for their riders.