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Exploring Florida's Wild Side

Discover another side to Florida where cowboys and cowgirls rule!

When you think of Florida, what comes to mind? Miles of white sandy beaches and turquoise water, I bet. Or tiki bars, tropical cocktails, and Jimmy Buffet tunes. Thrilling theme parks will be first up in your kids’ minds while adventurers will yearn to snorkel in colorful reefs, fish for red snapper, and kayak in pristine waterways. But there’s one aspect of Florida you may not know about. It’s the cowboy culture, Florida’s own brand of the Wild West, personified by proud cowboys and cowgirls even today.

On a recent visit to the Sunshine State, Peter and I explored this hidden side of Florida. We discovered a proud heritage of cattle ranching that’s still going strong. Throw in fabulous trail riding and rodeo fun, and it adds up to an all-new vacation destination. Want to learn more? Grab your cowboy hat, and let’s go!

Take a Trail Ride with Choyce LLC

Explore the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve

You may have heard the term Florida crackers before. Despite what you may think, it’s not a derogatory term. In fact, the term cracker refers to the proud horsemen and women throughout Florida’s history, a tradition that carries on today. Turns out the name cracker is derived from the sounds the cowboys’ long whips would make as they herded cattle across the Florida wilderness.

They’re still herding cattle today. In fact, Florida’s cattle population ranks 13th in the country and numbers over 880,000. That’s a lot of beef. You’ll find ranches everywhere in Florida except maybe in the glitzy resort towns. But drive a few miles into the interior, and you’ll see herds of cattle including Brahman, Angus, Hereford, and Charolais. Some of these cattle likely descended from the small herd of cows—along with a few head of horses—that Ponce de Leon brought to the New World in 1521.

While Peter and I didn’t visit a cattle farm during our visit, we did drive through miles of Florida’s outback, admiring the tidy ranches that extend for miles in Hernando and Pasco Counties. We were en route from our friend’s house in Spring Hill to meet Joyce Chartier of Choyce LLC for a two-hour trail ride in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve just east of Dade City.

Talk about wild. Once we left the coastal area behind, the scenery changed from cute, pastel-colored bungalows, an unending stream of stoplights, and cookie-cutter shopping centers to a tranquil natural landscape filled with Granddaddy oaks dripping in Spanish moss, open fields dotted with horses and cattle, and most surprising of all, hills and valleys reminiscent of ancient sand dunes covered now by deep forests, lagoons, and pasture land.

At the entrance to the preserve, Joyce pulled up towing her horse trailer, and we helped her saddle the horses and get ready to ride. My horse, a Palomino, was named Blondie. Peter rode Bella, and Joyce rode Paco. The afternoon sun filtered through gossamer clouds, and even though it was bit on the chilly side, the weather was perfect for a peaceful ride in this gorgeous 37,000-acre slice of Florida paradise.

Joyce let Peter and I ride side by side and even take the lead at times. We walked, trotted, and loped through silent woods and over rolling sand dunes and never saw another soul. The terrain was a mix of palm trees, shrubbery, live oaks, palmettos, deciduous trees, and conifers. Except for birds soaring above and chirping in the tree branches, we didn’t see any critters, just signs of rooting wild pigs who ploughed up the ground looking for insects, worms, and the occasional egg or small mammal.

Joyce told us the story of a time she took a group riding in a different location and came upon a huge alligator. “It was mating season, and that gator stood up on its hind legs, ready to attack,” Joyce said. “We didn’t even have to tell our horses to turn around. They took off flying. But we no one fell off, not even the nine-year-old boy who’d never even ridden before.” I was happy we didn’t run into any gators on our ride.

In nearby Brooksville we lunched at the Florida Cracker Kitchen, a local institution, my Spring Hill friends told us. The cozy restaurant owned by two local brothers, has grown to include locations across the state, as well as a tap room next door and a gift shop full of Florida Cracker merch. We sat on the porch under the warm glow of a portable heater and checked out the menu.

The booths and tables were full of locals, including several ranchers judging from their boots, and the vibe was definitely small-town charm. Prices were a third less than what you’d pay in a restaurant on the coast, and the atmosphere, priceless. We ordered a couple of the restaurant’s specialties: Pine Island coconut shrimp basket and Okeechobee gumbo to share.

The basket came with eight large golden-sweet shrimp, fries, and “kickin’ slaw,” a bargain at $8.99—and delicious, too. The gumbo, brimming with veggies, seafood, and chorizo, was tasty, but crunchy celery made me think it needed more time in the pot. A hoppy IPA was the perfect accompaniment.

Catch a Rodeo at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion

Competition Sponsored by Florida High School Rodeo Association

The highlight of our visit to Florida was a trip to Ocala to see a rodeo with our Spring Hill friends, Maureen and Dave. While this wasn’t a big and grand rodeo with high-ranking national competitors, it was still tons of fun. Boys and girls start riding rodeo at a young age, and in 1983 the Florida High School Rodeo Association was chartered with the mission “to promote rodeo and encourage high school children to participate.”

Wearing our cowboy hats and boots, we found our way to the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala, which incidentally is known as the Horse Capital of the World. (I know, you might have guessed it was Lexington, Kentucky, but the Ocala folks actually have the trademark for the slogan.) It turned out to be a cool January night in Florida, and as we walked through the open-air pavilion, we saw families with blankets and heaters and realized we were in for a chilly night.

But watching those kids ride their horses and compete in events like goat tying, barrel racing, team roping, and pole bending made us forget about the cold. The crowd reminded me of what you’d find at a high school football game: families with small kids, proud parents and grandparents, and teen couples walking around the bleachers hand in hand. What a wholesome atmosphere and a reminder of the core family values that make America strong.

I especially enjoyed seeing how earnest and dedicated the high schoolers were to their sport. Even though there will always be winners and losers, these kids took the outcomes in stride and loved on their horses even if their event hadn’t gone as well as they hoped. I imagine many of the rodeo teens come from ranching families, where they’ve learned how to handle challenges and overcome disappointment.

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered from my travels over the years is how rewarding it can be to take the time to “look behind the curtain” and find out what makes each place you visit special. Beautiful beaches, tiki bars, and fishing can be found all over the world, but Florida’s unique brand of cowboy culture connects the past with the present and provides an honest living to hard-working families. Whether you attend a rodeo, take a trail ride, or eat a juicy Florida steak, make sure you explore Florida’s wild side.

Plan Your Wild Florida Adventure

Here’s What You Need to Know

For places to stay, restaurants, and rodeo information in Central Florida, visit www.visitflorida.com.

Ready to saddle up with Choyce LLC? Reach Joyce Chartier and find out about rates and where you can ride at www.choycellc.com.

For excellent breakfasts and lunches, don’t miss Florida Cracker Kitchen in Brooksville. For location and opening hours, visit www.floridacrackerkitchen.com.

For more travel adventures, visit www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com