Florida’s Wild Cracker Horses
See the heirs of Ponce de Leon’s Spanish herd.
In 1521, Spanish explorers introduced horses to Florida. Today, you can see their ancestors–a herd of 20-odd horses–just 10 miles south of Gainesville, on Paynes Prairie, a 21,000-acre natural preserve. The horse’s name derives from the crack of the whip brandished by Florida cowboys. Feral bands formed after the Spanish abandoned their horses to make room on their ships for treasure. Once used to herd cattle and pull buggies, the last descendants of these stout, strong Spanish mustangs are now protected on the preserve. They stick to Cone’s Dike and Bolten Bluff, the best grazing in the preserve and a hangout for wild bison, alligators, and more than 270 species of birds.
Horses are roamers, but locals say that crackers reliably appear just about anywhere along Cone’s Dike Trail, an 8.2-mile out-and-back. From the visitor center, head .25 mile up the Jackson’s Gap Trail to merge onto Cone’s Dike. It zigzags across the preserve’s wide-open, reedy, and marshy southeastern edge. floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie