The Cowboy Way
Long before Texas cowboys were herding cattle, kicking up prairie dust, and riding into the sunset, their forebearers had been trotting across the Sunshine State’s expansive grasslands and swamp-speckled territory for centuries. Florida, as history would write, actually spawned our country’s very first cowboys.
When Juan Ponce de León arrived in Florida in 1521, he brought the first horses and Andalusian cattle with him to the United States. When Calusa Indians attacked, the Spanish explorer escaped, leaving the animals behind. Subsequent explorers would bring with them more livestock and, by the late-seventeenth century, Florida counted more than 30 ranches with cattle and horses totaling in the tens of thousands.
According to research from University of South Florida’s College of Education, by the 1800s, the Seminole Nation possessed great cattle herds. Searching for more grazing land nudged American Indians and white settlers south to areas like Alachua County and Lake Okeechobee. As an open state where steer roamed freely, Florida saw a prevalence of cattle rustling after the Civil War. Early cowboys would hunt and round up loose oxen using herding dogs and long bullwhips. It was the cracking sound their whips made that actually earned them the nickname “cracker.”
During steamy summer months, cracker cowboys congregated near Fort Pierce and drove scrub cattle across the state to western port towns to be shipped to Cuba and Key West. The 120-mile path they followed came to be known as the Florida Cracker Trail. Today, the Florida Cracker Trail Association reenacts the annual Florida Cracker Trail Ride every February. The nine-day sojourn kicks off in Bradenton, crosses five counties, then culminates with a horse parade through downtown Fort Pierce. Participants ride their own horses and make pit stops at popular attractions like Henscratch Farms in Lake Placid, whose free-range chickens lay green eggs.
Centuries later, the Treasure Coast area remains a hot spot for horse lovers, drawn by the panoramic surrounds, idyllic weather, and plethora of professionals focused on equine-related services.
Over the years, Martin County has drawn some of the brightest stars in the equestrian constellation. Olympian Tina Konyot moved to Palm City back in 1976, and today, the retired dressage champion trains riders and horses of all levels, from beginner up to Grand Prix. At nearby Wind Chase Farm, owners David Schneider and his wife, Heather (a U.S. Equestrian Federation gold medalist), selected the bucolic setting for their commercial horse-and-carriage business, which encompasses equine programs for special needs children and driver training.
Relaxed and retreat-like residences (some a short walk to town, others completely off the grid) sweetened with serene vistas and wide-open spaces are yet another draw. Dozens of communities, including Loxahatchee Groves and Trailside in Stuart, cater to the equine ideal with vast properties and attractive amenities like spacious tack rooms and outdoor arenas. Add to that the abundance of active endeavors, from riding to ranching, geared to the novice and advanced horseman alike and it’s easy to see why so many equine families have decided to settle in the area.
Florida’s ranching heritage is in fine fettle. According to the Florida Beef Council, the state is home to nearly 900,000 heads of cattle, and nearly half of all agricultural land is connected to cattle production. Right here in our area, there is no shortage of ranching families, many of whom have been planted in the region for generations.
If you’d like to get a taste of that cowboy life, take advantage of the many opportunities nearby where you can sign up for a western-style riding class or simply learn the ABCs of cattle handling at a private ranch. At Painted Quarters Farm in Indiantown, owners Greg Flewelling and his wife, Jonnie Wall-Flewelling, offer an immersive cattle-working experience at their ranch during April and October. The experience includes performing cattle roundups and separating cows and calves on horseback. They require appointments, which you can make by calling the inn (772.597.3777).
Horsemanship Journal once described ranch cutting and sorting as “working on a knife edge between success and failure.” Over in Okeechobee, Frankie Chesler teaches these disciplines, which double as timed horse competitions, to intermediate and advanced riders (with the help of a “flag,” or mechanical cow) at her Trinity Ranch.
Reining is a competitive sport few people outside the horsing community have heard of. It harkens back to when ranch horses were trained to perform fast-paced maneuvers, such as making fast circles at a gallop or sliding to a stop with a light rein or a verbal command. You can learn more about it and try your hand at the sport at Rein Maker Ranch in Loxahatchee, where National Reining Horse Association champion Daniela Picciotti gives lessons.
Like Ocala and Wellington, The Treasure Coast attracts the equine set with its myriad offerings that range from learning the art of dressage to marveling at the great outdoors from a trusted mount.
For a thrilling oceanside experience, head to Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on South Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce, where Tours on Horseback offers relaxed beach tours. Trot down the cerulean coastline and look out for slowly floating manatees and bottlenose dolphins at play. You can also opt in for one of their guided excursions through St. Lucie County’s state-protected wildlife areas. Bluefield Ranch Preserve, formerly a cattle ranch spread across 3,285 placid acres, and Paleo Hammock, an 80-acre preserve where ibis, white-tailed deer, and other indigenous wildlife take refuge amongst the marsh and hammocks, are top picks.
Martin County’s lush parklands bring more nature closeups. Allapattah Flats, a 20,945-acre park in Palm City, has dedicated equestrian trails, a 150-acre riding area, and three parking areas for horse trailers. In Seminole, “Allapattah” means “alligator.” But don’t worry: Riders are more likely to cross paths with hogs, wild turkeys, and other game animals.
Camping is an explorative activity you can share with your equine friend. Both Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound and DuPuis Management Area in Canal Point have equestrian campgrounds, where visitors are welcome to stay with their horses. Dupuis also boasts an equestrian center complete with barns and paddocks. If you prefer not to trailer in your own steed, Jonathan Dickinson stages handheld pony rides and hour-long, guided trail rides (a pre-orientation is required), which run through Easter.
Get in the Saddle
Becoming an experienced horseman begins with a lesson; remaining one is a lifelong process. Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, these four nearby riding centers cater to all levels.
International FEI dressage rider and trainer Natalia Martin teaches the ancient sport
and holds clinics year-round. Palm City; 703.795.1975
Learn the fundamentals of hunting and jumping or take your skills up a notch with owner Michelle Anne McNally. Stuart; 772.285.4875
Master the game of kings at Port Mayaca’s Polo School with head instructor and 5-goal professional polo player Martín Valent. Okeechobee; 772.577.9078
Linda Sistarelli has been schooling students in western riding, hunt seat riding, and dressage for more than 30 years. She also works with children and adults with special needs. Palm City; 772.621.0067
At Your Service
Four must-know local businesses for the equine set
This veterinary practice is the go-to spot for horse health. The clinic uses state-of-the-art equipment and techniques and offers comprehensive services ranging from lameness and reproduction to advanced dentistry and chiropractic care. The fully air-conditioned facility includes private treatment rooms, a 2,500-square-foot barn for stabling, a breeding shed, and five acres of pasture turnout for patients. Palm City; 561.744.9026
The onetime consignment vendor has morphed into the area’s top retailer of English riding gear. Shine inside the ring and out with equestrian staples from Ariat, Kerrits, The Tailored Sportsman, and more. Palm City; 772.463.7008
This family-owned store has been a trusted cowboy outfitter since 1974 selling everything from western boots and jewelry to saddles and tack. Stuart; 772.286.0099
Whether you need to purchase a new saddle or want to make sure the one you’re using is the right fit for you and your horse, Palmer Equine can help you. They offer saddle evaluations and reflocking services and also carry items for sale like saddles, pads, shims, inserts, bridles, and more. Palm City; 772.224.6950