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Finding your inner cowboy

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.

Cow towns

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.

Our tour guide gave a thorough environmental and historical education as the ride and a boardwalk trail took us through palmetto flatlands and an eerily beautiful cypress swamp.

The 4,700-acre Forever Florida near St. Cloud has taken the same idea to a gallop with the addition of several zip lines. Something more authentically Cracker? Horseback riding adventures put you in the yesteryear saddle. You can even join the ranch’s cowmen for three hours on their daily rounds. Or do an overnight camping Horseback Safari complete with riding instruction and campfire meals. Participants must be age 12 or older. To ride the zip lines, kids must be at least 10 years old and 70 pounds.

There’s also a Cypress Canopy Cycle Course, where you pedal the treetops hanging from a cable. Families with small kids can opt for the tamer, nature-focused Coach Eco-Safari aboard a big-wheeled, open-sided converted bus.

Luxury bunkhouse

Westgate River Ranch was first to combine ranching and vacationing in a resort setting. It provides rooms, efficiencies, and cabins, plus a number of cowboy activities, including a Saturday night rodeo that made me feel pretty much the cowgirl as the crowd stamped its feet to cheer on the performers.

Eat your meals at the western-style Smokehouse Grill or River Ranch Saloon, sign on for a hayride, entertain the kids at the petting farm and mini golf course, or go on a boat or horseback ride.

Creek Ranch raised the bar on the ranching-resorting package when it debuted its luxury all-inclusive bunkhouse experience more recently. Luxury, good food, and Florida style: This is my kind of cowgirling.

“Our accountant told us ‘the cows just aren’t paying the bills,’ ” owner Jim Black said, explaining the family’s move into the hospitality industry.

Once the family’s home, the bunkhouse has gotten a designer make-over. Named for family members and decorated by Jim’s mother, Jane, each of the five rooms has a stylish, boutique personality all its own. What they don’t have are televisions and door keys.

A big-screen TV, however, resides in one of the roomy public areas indoors and out. In the morning, I preferred to sit with coffee overlooking the nature’s-got-talent show — wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, wood storks, eagles, and white-tailed deer — from a rocking chair on the front porch.

Guests can also stay in a three-room Cracker cottage on property. Rates either way include breakfast and all beverages and ranch activities — swamp buggy, airboat, and sunset pontoon rides; horseback and four-wheel all-terrain vehicle riding; nature walks; bike use; skeet shooting; and fishing. You can also opt for a meal package, and it just wouldn’t be right to overlook a worshipful tribute to the bunkhouse kitchen.

Staff serves up Southern fried chicken in the formal dining room, hearty breakfast in the kitchen, ribs and chicken barbecue lunch in the screened Boat House, and a key lime pie that squeezes the Florida pucker into this particular ranch experience.

On my recent visit, I was ready to get my cowgirl on, Florida-style. It started with a true Florida whoosh as I boarded a small airboat that whisked around Lake Hatchineha at the Everglades’ Chain-of-Lakes headwaters. The boat’s shallow draft allowed us to skim over grass marshes into small log-jammed creeks, flushing water fowl and majestic birds as we roared.

The four-hour horseback ride and tour of the cattle operation facilities was enough for me; I passed on the cattle-herding adventure.

The weekend ended in true cow-hunter style, with a morning of shouldering a 20-gauge shotgun and yelling “pull,” then trying to knock yellow clay disks out of the cloud-puffed sky. Let’s just say I was bested by a 12-year-old computer geek. Bow-legged, saddle sore, shoulder-bruised, and having sated my inner cowgirl, I decided to forego the cowboy boots and stick to flip-flops.