Florida Cracker

  • HEIGHT: 13.2–15 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Southeastern United States; descended from early Spanish horses
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: An extremely rare breed of gaited horses with excellent “cow sense”
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Ranch work, endurance, trail riding, team penning, team roping

The Florida Cracker Horse’s long, remarkable history was shaped by the early Spanish, their cattle, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and a parasite. Soon after the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean, they began their exploration and conquest of Central and South America and what is now the continental United States. Horses arrived in the Southeast in 1521, when Ponce de León brought them on his second trip to Florida. The horses were used by ranking members of the expedition, by scouts, and by riders who herded livestock.

From this point on, most subsequent Spanish expeditions to Florida brought horses and cattle. Cattle ranching became firmly established by the late 1500s. By 1650, the district the Spanish referred to as Guale, which included northern Florida and southern Georgia, had seventy-nine missions, eight large towns and two royal haciendas, and many horses and cattle. By the end of the 1600s, the Spanish cattle industry, in what is now Florida, was enjoying success.

The Spanish horses were a utilitarian mixture of breeds that included the Barb, the Garrano, the Jennet, Sorraia ponies (originally from Portugal), some Andalusians, and probably other breeds from Iberia. They ranged in size from 13.2 to 15 hands, with short backs; sloping shoulders, pasterns, and croups; low tail sets; good limbs and hooves; wide foreheads; delicately formed nostrils; and, it was often noted, lively, beautiful eyes.

This collection of traits, along with a few others, including a tendency to be smooth-gaited, is referred to as Spanish traits, Spanish traits tend to persist over time if the breed is not genetically diluted. Spanish traits are readily apparent in the Florida Cracker, visually linking these horses to their early Spanish roots.

What’s in a Name?

Early cattle drovers moved their animals along with cracking whips. The sound of the whips gave the drovers, their rough cattle, and their cow ponies the name Cracker. The horses have had a host of other names over the years, including Chickasaw Pony, Seminole Pony, March Tackie, Prairie Pony, Florida Horse, and Grass Gut.

The cattle of the time were small, wild, and wily and the terrain was brush covered and difficult to work in. It took quick, tireless, agile little horses with tremendous herding ability to do the work. The Cracker Horses were perfect for the task. They were so well suited to the terrain and work to be done that they remained the predominant type from Florida and Georgia to the Carolinas from the mid-1500s until the 1930s.

During the Dust Bowl years, the U.S. government encouraged the movement of cattle from parched western states into Florida. The western cattle were considerably larger than the Cracker cattle, and they brought with them the parasitic screwworm. This meant they had to be frequently roped and held for veterinary treatment. The little Cracker Horses just couldn’t hold the large cattle as well as bigger horses could, so they soon were replaced by Quarter Horses.

The Florida Cracker is a naturally gaited breed with several variations, including a flatfoot walk, running walk, trot, and an ambling gait.

In short order, Cracker Horses became so rare that they almost disappeared. However, in the past fifteen years, through the efforts of interested owners, a breed registry and association, and now the state of Florida, these interesting and useful horses are returning from the edge of extinction.

Breed Characteristics

Crackers are small, comfortable horses and willing workers. Exceptionally quick and agile, they make fine trail and endurance horses and they excel at activities where agility is important. With their strong herding abilities, Crackers shine at ranch work and in sports such as working cow horse, team roping, and team penning.

Conformation

Like their ancestors, Crackers range from about 13.2 to 15 hands and weigh between 750 and 1,000 pounds. The head has a straight or slightly convex profile, with a short, well-defined jaw. The eyes are keen and alert with good width between them. The well-defined neck without excessive crest measures about the same length as the distance from the withers to the croup. The back is narrow and strong, with well-sprung ribs. The croup is sloping and short and the tail set is medium to low.

Cracker Horses are small, quick, and agile. Bay, brown, and black are the most common colors.

Gait

The breed is gaited. The Florida Cracker Horse Association recognizes the flatfoot walk, the running walk, the trot, and an ambling or Paso-type gait. The horses also canter and gallop. All gaits are ground covering, comfortable, and easy for both horse and rider.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Florida Cracker Horse Association (founded in 1989):

  • The Florida Cracker Horse Registry was established in 1991.
  • In 2005, there were 720 registered horses.
  • About 40–60 foals are added each year.
  • As of 2005, there are five horses in Texas, one in New York, six in Alabama, and six in Georgia. The rest are in Florida.

Color

Florida Cracker Horses may be found in all colors known to the horse, although bay, brown, black, and gray predominate. There are occasional grullas, duns, and sorrels.

Though now quite rare, the Cracker played an important part in the development of the southern United States.