by Kristin Berkery
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.
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.
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.
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. The five-minute video below has history and footage of the Cracker Horse in action.