Sparkplug amenably enough allowed me to feel in control and steer him where I wanted to go. Except, that is, when we came across cattle in the pasture: Then the tawny gelding pulled stubbornly in the direction of the black Brangus cows and white Charolais bulls at Creek Ranch in Central Florida.
Sparkplug, you see, is no tourist-attraction horse. He is a true working steed, hard-wired to drive the herd. At Creek Ranch, you can opt to work with the ranch’s cowmen in true dude ranch fashion, but we were doing a more leisurely nature walk through the 1,400-acre ranch south of Kissimmee. I wanted to ease into this whole cowgirl routine.
The Creek Ranch cowmen (Floridian ranchers don’t cotton to the term “cowboy,” unless they’re talking about their kids) cater to all levels of riders, including amateurs like myself. Driving the herd? Hmmm, maybe another day.
It surprises most people, even Floridians, that the state ranks second in the nation (or third, depending on who’s talking) for beef production. In truth, cattle ranching has been embedded in Florida genes ever since the Spanish first steered their longhorns to shore.
Kissimmee and Central Florida historically have been headquarters for the ranching industry, which made rich men of early cattle drivers. They herded the wild animals to ports such as Punta Rassa, across the bay from Sanibel Island, for transshipment. Their long whips cracked in the sultry, dusty Florida air, inventing the term “Cracker” to label them and their ways.
Today, a few of the Florida ranches invite tourists to sample the life of a ranch hand. Some offer daytime adventure, others overnight accommodation; and as much immersion as the guests want, from site tours by coach, boat, horseback, or zip line to active participation in a cattle drive.
Creek Ranch is the newest of the attractions, a new luxury bunkhouse experience on Lake Hatchineha near Dundee.
Not far away, Lake Kissimmee State Park offers a daytime attraction that transports visitors back to that cattle-driving chapter of Florida bygones on the same land where cattle once roamed.
A costumed re-enactor plays the part of a cow hunter in a circa 1870 cow camp. He offered me a cup of the tar-black coffee off the fire (“I have ta start a new pot ever’ three weeks or so”), told the group about his latest cattle drive in a slow country drawl, and screwed up his face in bafflement when someone pulled out a cell phone.
Should you want to spend the night, make a reservation for the separate campground and bring your own equipment.
Down at Babcock Ranch near Punta Gorda, ranchers have preserved the longhorn Andalusian strain of cattle that came to be known as Cracker cows, descendants of those brought over by Ponce de Leon and others who followed his New World footsteps.
The wild south
On the Babcock Wilderness Adventures swamp buggy ride, I toured the cattle operation, which — like Creek Ranch — makes its money off Brangus and Braford cattle.
Since the late 1980s, however, ranches such as Babcock began looking for ways to supplement dwindling profits from beef. Eco-, agro-tourism seemed like the answer and a good way to educate folks about the industry and its heritage.
The vast ranches were rich with wildlife and natural resources, so nature became a by-product of the operations. Besides cattle, our swamp buggy tour at Babcock saw wild boars, white-tailed deer, alligators, sandhill cranes, egrets, owls, wild turkeys and even an old, rescued Florida panther living out retirement behind a fence.