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Florida Cracker

 

The Florida Cracker

History
The Florida Cracker Horse, like the cattle breed of the same name, traces it’s ancestry to Spanish stocks brought to the Americas beginning in the 1500s.  Historically, Cracker Horses were an essential part of the cattle industry in Florida, which began almost 500 years ago and still flourishes today. Florida cowboys were nicknamed "crackers" because of the sound made by their whips cracking in the air. This name was also given to the small, agile Spanish horses that were essential for working Spanish cattle. Over the years, Cracker Horses have been known by a variety of names: Chickasaw Pony, Seminole Pony, Marsh Tackie, Praire Pony, Florida Horse, Florida Cow Pony, Grass Gut and others.  The ancestors of today’s Cracker Horses were introduced into what is now Florida as early as 1521 when the Spaniard, Ponce de Leon, on his second Florida trip, brought horses, cattle and other livestock.

The genetic heritage of the Cracker Horse can be traced to the Iberian Horse of early 16th century Spain and includes blood of the North African Barb, Spanish Sorraia, Spanish Jennet and the Andalusian. Its genetic base is generally the same as that of the Spanish Mustang, Paso Fino, Peruvian Paso, Criolla and other breeds developed from the horses originally introduced by the Spanish into the Caribbean Islands, Cuba and North, Central and South America.  The introduction of horses, cattle and other livestock by other Spanish explorers and colonists continued well into the next century and, by mid-1600, cattle ranching and horse breeding was well established. Feral herds started from escaped and liberated animals and both Spanish horses and cattle were quite numerous and common to many areas of Florida long before it became a United States possession in 1821. In the territory that became Florida, Cracker Horses evolved mostly through natural selection as the horses roamed freely. Survival in this environment meant adapting to its extremes, and the Cracker Horse became vital part in Florida's heritage. First the Indians and later the Pioneers began to use the Spanish Horses. Besides their natural herding instinct, Florida Crackers were prized for their unusual strength and endurance and naturally fast walk.  They were hardy, had adapted well to the Florida climate and environment and excelled as working cow ponies. Cracker Horses were frequently pressed into service as buggy horses, work stock, and in many instances, were the only horse power for many family farms well into the twentieth century.

They are indeed a vital part of Florida's Agricultural Heritage and are very deserving of a place in Florida's future.  There were thousands of horses running freely over Florida by the 18th century.  William Bartram, a famous naturalist of the time, described Florida Cracker Horses as “the most beautiful and sprightly species of that noble creature” that he had ever seen.  By the 1930s the quick-footed, little cow-hunters experienced a devastating setback that almost led to its extinction.  The Great Depression led to the creation of a number of relief programs, one of which encouraged the movement of cattle from the Dust Bowl into Florida.  With the cattle came the screwworm parasite causing major changes in the practice of cattle raising.  Before the screwworm, cowboys used horses to herd and drive free roaming Scrub and Cracker cattle.  With the arrival of the screwworm came the need to rope cattle and hold them for veterinary treatment and dipping.  As a result, ranchers turned to larger and stronger breeds like the Quarter Horse and the Florida Cracker Horse declined.

Preservation
With an estimated worldwide population of 2,000 and less than 100 new registrations annually, the Florida Cracker is considered rare.  The breed’s survival over the last fifty years resulted from the work of a few families who continued to breed Cracker Horses for their own use. 

It was these ranching families and individuals whose perseverance and preservation of distinct horse bloodlines that kept the Cracker horses from becoming extinct.  In 1984, the late John Ayers of Brooksville donated a group of Cracker Horses to the State of Florida from which the state owned herds at the Florida Agricultural Museum in Tallahassee and the Withlacoochee State Forest were started. The Paynes Prairie State Preserve herd, where the free roaming Spanish horses were once quite numerous, was started in 1985 with Ayers line horses that were purchased and donated to the Preserve by The Friends of Paynes Prairie, a Citizen's Support Organization.

Breed Characteristics
Cracker Horses are from 13.5 to 15 hands in height and weigh from seven hundred fifty to over nine hundred pounds. They are known for their unusual strength and endurance, herding instinct, quickness and fast walking gait. A good percentage of them have a running walk and some have a single-foot gait which, in true Cracker dialect, is often referred to as a "Coon Rack." Cracker Horse colors are any color common to the horse, however, solid colors, roans and grays are predominant. 

The free roaming Cracker Horse evolved over a long period of time through natural selection. It was molded and tempered by nature and a challenging environment into the horse that ultimately was to have a large part in the emergence of Florida as a ranching and general agriculture
state.

Cattle
Similarly Florida Cracker Cattle were shaped primarily by natural selection in an environment that is generally hostile to cattle.  This has resulted in a breed that is heat-tolerant, long-lived, resistant to parasites and diseases, and productive on low quality forage found on the grasslands and swamps of the Deep South.  It was not until the importation of Zebus from India and the development of the American Brahman breed this century that the Florida Cracker had competition from other heat tolerant cattle.  Not long afterwards, the development of parasiticides and other medications allowed British and European breeds to survive in the Deep South, and thus the Florida cattle industry was further diversified.

The influx of new breeds very nearly caused the extinction of the Florida Cracker breed.  By the mid-1900s, the majority of purebred cows had been crossbred, first to Brahmas and then to British and European breeds.  The cracker cow provided the maternal ability and hardiness necessary for crossbreeding programs to succeed, and the genetic distance between Florida Cracker Cattle and other breeds created exceptional hybrid vigor in the offspring.  The credit for success, however, was always given to the improved breeds, and the Florida Cracker was largely abandoned.  As with Florida Cracker Horses, Cracker Cattle survived in a pure form through the efforts of a few Florida families, stubbornly resistant to “progress”. 

As one would expect of cattle adapted to the heat, Florida Cracker cattle are small, with cows weighing 600-800 pounds and bulls weighing 800-1,200 pounds.  They exhibit the angular conformation typical of Spanish cattle adapted to harsh conditions.  Horne style and shape vary, including very long and twisted horns as well as smaller, more crumpled shapes.  Polled cattle are found occasionally.  Dwarf types of Florida Crackers, called “guineas”, occurred historically and were well regarded as milk producers.  The breed shares many of the same bloodlines as the Texas Longhorns and the Piney Woods cattle of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.   

Colors in the breed vary widely, including almost all of the colors known in cattle.  This is a legacy from the breed’s ancestors in the south of Spain, where even today ranchers prefer multi-colored herds.  Generally, solid red, dun, black, and brindle colors predominate.  

The state of Florida has been a leader in the conservation and promotion of the Florida Cracker breed during the past two decades.  Florida Cracker Cattle are considered a living part of Florida history, and herds have been maintained at several state parks and forests.  The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have supported the establishment of the Florida Cracker Cattle Association and a breed registry which is operated by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.  The Florida Cracker Cattle breed is still quite rare, with fewer than 1,000 animals alive today.  The Florida Agricultural Museum is pleased to assist with the conservation of this unusual heritage livestock breed.      

For more information on Florida Crackers visit:
http://www.florida-agriculture.com/livestock/cracker_cattle.htm

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Florida Cracker

 

 
 

Located north of Dade City in Pasco County Florida
352-583-4819
Please call or email for additional information

 

Updated: September, 2011