Florida Cracker Ride

Florida Cracker Ride

The scene is straight out of the mid-1800s:  Two cowgirls in faded denim, bandanas at their throats and hat brims pulled low to shield the sun’s glare, pause their mounts as they push the herd of cattle before them slowly through an endless expanse under a cloudless sky.  They hear a bzzz … bzzz … bzzz behind them: rattlesnake?

Nope.  Just another rider’s cellphone vibrating.

It’s the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016, and Michelle Turner and Linda Ballantine-Brown are two of the would-be cow hunters—call ’em wannabe cow huntresses, if you will—reenacting a cattle drive of yore.  They’ll help move nearly 500 Florida Cracker cattle more than 50 miles through the Florida flatwoods north of Kissimmee. 

Cattle-Ranching Tradition

Although Christopher Columbus brought a few cattle with him on his second expedition in 1493, Juan Ponce de León arguably established the first domesticated cattle herd in America, originating with the seven Andalusian cows he brought with him on his second trip to Florida in 1523.  Then, in 1539, Hernando de Soto brought a passel more cows to Florida.  Many of these Andalusian cattle strayed and roamed free; native Americans captured and domesticated others.

When the early Florida settlers arrived in the 1800s, they worked these rangy, scrub cattle with dogs and cracking whips instead of with lariats, thus earning the name “Cracker. ” These Crackers were dubbed cow hunters instead of cowboys, as they often had to search for their cattle through treacherous alligator-laced swamps, cypress sloughs, horse-crippling saw palmetto with its sideways-growing roots, and slash-pine flatwoods.  Their dauntless, decisive cowdogs—mostly curs and feists—are now known collectively as Florida Cracker dogs.  The horses the cow hunters rode—small, short-backed, smooth-gaited descendants of the animals brought by the Spanish explorers with ancestry tracing back to the Spanish Barb—became an official breed, the Florida Cracker Horse, in 2008.

Wild Florida continues to vanish at an alarming rate—the Florida Fish & Wildlife Service predicts that at the rate of current development, another 7 million acres will be entombed under asphalt and concrete by 2060.

Colored bandanas allow each “circle boss” to quickly identify her wranglers from among the 415 participants.

Yet here in the belly of the Sunshine State, nearly two million head of cattle on nearly eight million acres of rangeland coexist with thousands of wildlife species, 68 of which are either threatened or endangered, sharing the miraculous wetland-laced flatwoods and palm-saw prairie that serves as cleansing kidneys to Florida’s precious water resources.

In the early 1990s, a group dedicated to preserving Central Florida’s great cattle-ranching tradition—smack-dab between Orlando’s big-eared mouse to the north and the swimming mermaids of  Weeki Wachee to the south—conceived the Great Florida Cattle Drive, launching the inaugural ride in ’95 and holding the second in 2006.

Women in Every Role

Arguably one of the matriarchs of the Great Florida Cattle Drive from the git-go, Imogene Yarborough (who along with her husband Ed first began ranching 8,000 acres in Seminole County in 1954) has worked tirelessly to preserve Florida’s ranching legacy ever since—efforts that earned her the “Woman of the Year in Agriculture” award in 2012. Ed, a third-generation cattle rancher who passed away in 2000, and Imogene raised two sons, J.W. and Bo, and two daughters, Lynn and Reba, all of whom are involved, to various degrees, in running the ranch today.

Imogene’s daughter Lynn Yarborough Hanshew serves with her on the Great Florida Cattle Drive’s ways-and-means committee, which spent 18 months preparing for the drive. Hanshew drove a wagon pulled by Belgian draft horses in 1996 and 2006; this time she worked instead of participated by driving the sag wagon.

“Not only did women outnumber men on the drive,” says Hanshew,  “The were involved at every level: on the executive committee, as circle bosses, as cow hunters and young cow hunters, and among the sheriff’s officers and the transport drivers. Wounded women veterans even participated through Operation Outdoor Freedom.”

Ten wagons and a 150-person support team make the epic adventure possible.

Hanshew took to her task of planning (mother Imogene turned 80 just before the drive and doesn’t email or text) with both the broad vision and exacting eye for detail of a five-star general, albeit with much greater bonhomie.  Riders were divided into “circles” based on region, with a designated circle boss for each, and issued bandanas with the brands of sponsors, each circle with its own color so circle bosses could easily identify their members from afar.  The circles would take turns riding up front with the cow hunters and the herd while the rest trailed behind.  By the time of the two-day prep before hitting the trail, Hanshew had tallied up more than 415 registered participants, 150-plus support staff, and 10 wagons ready to move out.

Despite all the planning and preparations in mapping out the route that more than 400 head of cattle and more than 500 horses—plus wagons, trucks, and dogs—would take through 13 private ranches and broad swaths of public lands, another lady was fixin’ to throw a spoke in the wheel:  Her name? Mother Nature.  As the drive commenced, she dialed the temperature down to freezing, and then hit ’em with four inches of rain in 48 hours.

Rivers and creeks swelled.  Tent sites flooded.  Trails washed out.  As would a cowgirl of yesteryear, Hanshew needed the assistance of a first-rate Indian scout—delivered in 21st-century style by the Seminole tribe, which has its own aircraft fleet and also donates to the drive and performs.  They carried her aloft for an aerial overview to determine what changes need be made in the route.

It Ain’t for Sissies

Linda Ballantine Brown, an artist based in Ocala specializing in equine art who’s been ranching and riding for more than two decades, was atop her trusty cutting horse, Captain, with saddle pal Sandy Carris alongside on her mule.

Carris, whose late husband served as a circle boss in 1995, rode on the 2006 drive in his memory and returned this year, trailering her mule from New Mexico where she runs a small café outside the Gila National Forest.

“We started out cold that morning,” Ballantine Brown tells me, “and then we got wet.  Really wet … soaked.  And then … well, things got Western.

“We were taking our turn riding up front with the cow hunters and cows,” she says, “when a deer darted out of the flatwoods, spooking the herd in all directions.  Then, the real cattle drive ratcheted up, as we had to help the cow hunters round up every single cow.”

Adds Carris, laughing,  “My mule discovered a top gear even he didn’t know he had.”  So round up the herd they did.

With the herd back together, Ballantine Brown, a vivacious blonde grandma with a smile bigger’n Dallas, decided to treat herself to a fine cigar.  “I realized I didn’t see one of the guys who’d been with us, so I went back to check on him.  Turns out, he was one of the wounded veterans with Florida’s Operation Outdoor Freedom project, and he got a charge out of me riding up with a cigar clenched in my teeth.”  Later that soldier would present her with a box of cigars in respect for her gritty no-man-left-behind attitude—one he could identify with from his service in Iraq.

“That was among the most meaningful things that happened to me on the ride,” she says.  “I just love how the drive embodies the pioneer Cracker spirit: If it gets tough, deal with it.  If someone—or some animal—is in trouble, help them.”

In addition to personal gear and tack—Ballantine Brown’s tipped the scales at 60 pounds, including her custom-made Calvin Allen saddle— riders bring feed for their mounts, stable supplies, and either picket line or electric fence.  Each morning of the six-day ride means up before daybreak, dress, break camp, feed your horse and yourself, ride for 6 to 8 hours, then pitch your tent, tend and feed your mount, eat, and sleep. Sleeping in or straggling is not tolerated.

As the motto of the Great Florida Cattle Drive states:  It ain’t for sissies.

Changed Routes, Changed Riders

Even after Hanshew’s overflight in the Seminole chopper, cow hunters at the front of the herd made some last-minute route changes, dictated by obstacles, soft ground, and rising water.

“You can’t really plan something like this down to the nth degree,” Michelle Turner, another participant tells me.  “Too many moving parts: cattle, horses, dogs, rigs that break down, wild animals.”  Turner, an ebullient horsewoman and three-time participant—she drove a wagon in the 1995 drive and rode in the 2006 one—knew the physical challenges to be great, but found that the mental tests were just as much so.

“It’s a pretty fast pace,” she says, “and highly regimented. The drive moves as one, and you’re all out in the middle of nowhere.  You can’t just go home because you’re wet and weary; OK, maybe if you break a rib or something.

“When we reached the Silver Spurs Arena on the final day, a wave of accomplishment washed over me like nothing I’ve ever known.  Being a double-transplant survivor (she had both liver and kidney transplants in 2011),  I know what it’s like to be dependent on machines for life itself. Every morning, I wake up feeling lucky to be alive.  And I’m a lot stronger than I thought.”

The same can be said of the Great Florida Cattle Drive itself: As momentum builds and the urgency to preserve Florida’s ranching legacy and wilderness increases, planning is already underway for the fourth Great Florida Cattle Drive, to be held in 2021 to mark 500 years of Florida Cracker tradition.

Photography by Gil Williams.

(Originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).