On a pleasant January day, we attended one of the many Cracker Day rodeos in Florida.
Most out-of-state people think first of Florida beaches or perhaps Orlando or Miami. If asked about Florida agriculture, they might say oranges. But over half of Florida’s agricultural land is devoted to cattle. Cattle have been raised in Florida longer than anywhere else in the country.
It is said, Ponce de Leon landed 7 ancestors of the Texas Longhorn close to Fort Myers in 1521. Tax records show 25 Florida cattle ranches by 1700. After raids in 1702 and 1704, Seminole Indians found cattle raising so attractive, one chief was called “Cowkeeper” (1710-1783). The early Florida cowboys controlled the cattle with “cracks” from ten to twelve foot-long whips. Hence, the name “Crackers.”
Today, most large Florida ranches just raise calves on always-green pastures to be shipped to other states that raise corn for feed. But there are still real cowboys and cowgirls, and rodeos are held in many parts of the state.
The Lee County Posse Arena in North Fort Myers, Florida, a volunteer group, was created in 1960 to benefit local ranch children, or indeed, any child who wants to ride. They work with the Lee County Junior Posse, the 4H, and sponsor junior and senior high school rodeos.
Although most of our Cracker Day Rodeo was devoted to children and teenagers, adults did participate in some of the roping events.
After the Special Equestrians Drill Team, a group of challenged children who have been helped through riding lessons, performed, our M.C., Al was introduced. Al’s family settled in St. Augustine in the early 1700s.
The Junior Posse equestrian drill team entered with flags and performed, and then the national anthem was sung followed by prayer by the pastor from Bullpit Ministries who invited all to “Cowboy Church” the following morning.
Then came a touching ceremony as two riders accompanied a riderless horse around the arena in honor of 23 year-old Kaitlyn Guilford who passed away from cancer after many years participating in the rodeo.
Most events were pretty standard: bull riding, team roping, breakaway roping, pole and barrel races. But three were particularly fun and new to us. “Muttin Bustin” features children six and under attempting to ride a sheep: we were told many a rodeo star got their start this way. And at intermission, there were “boot races” for different age groups. The kids take off their boots, walk to the starting line at the other end of the arena, race to find and put on their boots and then race back to the finish line. It was made more challenging for the older kids when officials scattered their boots every which way.
Another new one for us was “Buddy Pick-up” in which the rider races to the other end of the arena, their “buddy” climbs up behind the rider, and they gallop to the finish in a timed race. It is not easy to get on a moving horse.
We found out about the rodeo through our local newspaper. Not knowing anyone involved, we just attended one day of the three-day event. That was enough for city-folk, but we are tempted to come back next time for the “Pee Wee Goat Tail Tying” or to see what the Pee Wee and Junior “Hairpin” involve.