Ranching in Florida; Horses and Dogs
- September 13, 2023
- Marisol Tarango
There are many different ways and traditions to achieve the same end when it comes to tending cattle, and there are many different words for the same thing in the cattle industry across America, even the world. But one thing holds true, a cowboy isn’t much without his horses, and depending on where you are, his dogs. The cow, a creature with unexpected cunning often requires a two legged and a four-legged species team bringing together the cunning and physical ability to make the same tactical decisions as the cow.
In Florida, like many other places, horses and dogs are an integral part of ranching. Cattle are not always bucket trained and even then, they are not always horse trained either. For the cows with a wild streak, the dogs are our salvation, working in tandem with our horses almost as long as ranching has been in Florida. With our horses we are able to keep up with cattle and push them out of the woods and into the pens. But our dogs help keep the cattle contained, especially the cows that are not inclined to stay in the herd.
In the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s the main horse breed used by cowboys was the Florida Cracker Horse, also known as a Marshtackie. This horse is descended from feral Spanish horses that were left in the wild and eventually used by the various herdsmen of Florida to herd the cattle that were also left by the Spanish. This breed of horse developed into a hardy and wiry horse with a unique walking gait. Modern Cracker Horses look much like a Quarter Horse and can range from about 13 to 15 hands in height. In modern times most Florida cowboys ride Quarter Horses, but some characteristics of a Cracker Horse are still preferred. A horse that has a good travel, which in Florida means a horse that is capable of a fast-paced walk, is something to brag about. Even though it is not a true gait, this walk is so fast that it almost breaks into a trot, but not quite. This is a learned pace, some horses are better at it than others. The gelding that I rode when I was very young did not excel at this “walk.” He really preferred to do a slow western pleasure jog, and he was built like a tank, so I am not sure how capable he actually was of a fast paced walk. But the mare that I graduated to after him, man she could travel! We called it her “cow walk” because as soon as she had any sense that a cow was nearby, she would start pacing after them. She could out walk any of the other horses on the crew.
Our dogs did not descend from Spanish anything; we made that one up ourselves. We call them Cur dogs. Sometimes they are referred to as Florida Cur dogs, but they are related to all of the Cur and Catahoula dogs from the south. A Cur dog is a cross between a bulldog and a hound that eventually developed into its own breed. Though they are used for cow work, they are also a favorite with hog hunters. Whenever a dog does not work cows well, they usually end up being a good hog dog. Because they are a mix between a hound and a bulldog, Cur dogs have a decent nose on them as well as a baying instinct. This is just the combination needed in Florida since the dogs need to hunt the cows in the swamp and woods before they can actually bay them up. That is one difference in how we use our dogs in Florida versus other states, we send our dogs to find the cows and bay them up into a herd. After they are bayed up, we call out the dogs and push the cows on their way. We do not use our dogs to direct the cows while they are moving like you would with a breed like a Border Collie. Cur dogs are like a car brake for wild cattle. Some dogs have a better nose than other dogs and some dogs bay better than other dogs, so a cowboy usually has a pack with both types of specialties. When I was younger, we had a dog named Susie; she was my dad’s best hunter. All the cowboys would call her Bear Dog because she would stand up on her hind legs sniffing for the cows. She was so hungry for cows that one time she jumped out of my dad’s trailer while he was going down the road so she could go after the cows.
There have been many times where I went to help gather cattle with our horses and dogs only to realize we probably could have done it with a truck and a bag of feed. But there have been many more times that I have been running through the woods on foot willing to make a deal with whatever small magical man appeared that offered me a good dog and a fast horse.
About Marisol Tarango
Marisol lives on her family’s ranch in Central Florida where she grew up working cattle and horses with her dad and four siblings, while being homeschooled by her mom. Today she balances her life between working on the ranch, working as a church secretary in...