Florida's agriculture industry has an overall economic impact estimated at nearly 100 billion dollars annually. While citrus, horticulture, fruits and vegetables might be the best-known Florida crops, people probably don't know that agriculture in Florida all started with cattle ranching. And that cattle ranching, and the impressive and diverse agriculture industry that it spawned, would not have been possible without the legendary Cracker horse.
The ancestors of today's Cracker Horses were introduced to Florida by Spanish explorers, beginning with Ponce de Leon in 1521, and continuing well into the next century. Over the next 200 years, however, Spanish settlements were abandoned in the face of British expansion, and their livestock was left to roam wild in the harsh Florida wilderness.
Hardy and well-adapted to the Florida climate and environment, the free roaming Spanish horse learned to survive and thrive on its own. Feral herds expanded and by the 18th century thousands of these horses roamed freely throughout Florida. William Bartram, a famous naturalist of the time, described them as "the most beautiful and sprightly species of that noble creature" that he had ever seen.
When Florida's pioneer farm families established ranches across the newly acquired U.S. territory in the early 1800s, they recognized the value of using these wild horses in maintaining their cattle herds. Small and agile, the horses were perfectly suited for moving through the palmettos that covered Florida's landscape. Florida cowboys, nicknamed "crackers" because of the sound made by their whips cracking in the air, could hunt stray cows where other horses failed. This breed became so essential to working cattle in Florida's rough conditions that it, too, was given the name Cracker.
During the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, a number of Florida ranches began exporting cattle to Cuba, and thousands of cracker cattle moved through Florida's ports. In one 10-year period beginning in 1868, 1.6 million head of cattle were shipped from Florida docks, making the state America's leading exporter. This burgeoning cattle trade became the foundation of Florida's vast agricultural economy. Many of Florida's oldest and largest businesses began as cattle ranching operations during this time, and all depended on the Cracker horse.
Although best known for their talents at working cattle, Cracker Horses frequently saw service as buggy horses, and work stock. In many instances, they were the only horsepower for family farms well into the twentieth century. Yet for all its success, no one realized the breed was on the verge of extinction.
During the 1930s, cattle herds suffering in drought-stricken "Dust Bowl" states were moved to the lush grasslands of Florida; and with them came the devastating screwworm. The arrival of this parasite led to changes in the way Florida ranchers raised cattle. Fencing and dipping vats became commonplace. Ranchers turned to the stronger Quarter Horse to rope and hold cattle for treatment. The smaller, more agile Cracker Horse, perfect for herding and driving free roaming cows, was suddenly obsolete.
But the Cracker Horse would not go away without a fight. Over the past fifty years, a few of Florida's ranching families continued to breed Cracker Horses for their own use. It was their preservation of distinct horse bloodlines that kept the Cracker horses from becoming extinct. And from these lines, the Cracker Horse is making a remarkable comeback.
As an extension of its Cracker Cattle program, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services established herds of Cracker Horses in Tallahassee and Withlacoochee from some of those pure bloodlines. To adopt breed standards and register foundation stock for preservation herds, the Department helped establish the Florida Cracker Horse Association in 1988. Today, along with the Cracker Cattle Association, the Department hosts an annual Cracker Gatherin' and Sale, allowing ranchers interested in preserving the Cracker Horse to own a piece of Florida's past.
The Cracker horses are living, tangible links to Florida's history -- a part of Florida's Agricultural Heritage that are making a place for themselves in Florida's future.