BALM — When the power company told him he couldn't take time off to harvest his watermelons, Joe Sumner told them to stick it. Went out and made a whole bunch of money.
He's independent. So were his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all of them cattle ranchers who helped put eastern Hillsborough County on the map.
Sumner, 69, lives on a Balm ranch, where cows stand in the middle of a dirt road and stare you down.
Once, his family owned all the land from Boyette Road to south of the Little Manatee River. As a boy, Joe used to get on his horse and be gone. Take a shotgun, some fishing line and a bird dog, and not see another human being.
Today, Sumner's 2,000-acre ranch is still spacious. Nestled at the back on the property, there's a hammock on a front porch that wraps around two sides of the house.
He turns the key on his Ford 4x4 truck and the engine gargles diesel. A dog trots behind the truck as Sumner and Paula Moore, a close friend, creep across a field to a group of smallish horses with flowing manes.
He shuts off the truck at a safe distance. They slip out quietly, Moore carrying a bucket of feed.
"Walk real slow," Sumner says.
To the untrained eye they look like, well, horses, but just a hair smaller. They are Florida Cracker horses, and their history is embedded with that of the state.
A 1500s import
Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon is thought to have brought Cracker horses to Florida in 1521, along with cattle and livestock and the 200 men he mistakenly thought would be enough to fend off Calusa Indians. Accounts say Ponce de Leon was astride a horse when he took a poison-tipped arrow to the shoulder, which proved fatal. The overmatched troops fled to Cuba, leaving some horses behind.
Over the next 50 years, several other explorers raised horses and livestock at Caribbean outposts and brought the animals to Florida for farming. Many of the horses were later lost or abandoned, and they survived in the wild for hundreds of years.
Cracker horses descended from the Iberian horse of Spain. They carry Arabian and Andalusian bloodlines and are genetically similar to the Spanish mustang. The Florida Cracker Horse Association has unearthed descriptions of the breed's ancestors as having "a short back, sloping rump, wide forehead, beautiful eyes, delicately formed nostrils and sloping shoulders." Those phrases could also apply to the Florida Cracker horse.
The narrow-chested Cracker horses stand slightly shorter than quarter horses and weigh less. Surviving in feral herds for so long made the breed more hardy and resourceful.
Great cattle herders
Sumner's family used the horses for generations to herd cattle.
"They have cow sense, just like you and I have traits," he said. "This horse has a job to do, and he's looking to see where the cows are going to go."
Those street smarts and toughness also enabled the horses to guide cattle through vats of tick repellent, an unintended consequence of importing Brahman bulls in the 1920s and 1930s. The cattle wouldn't walk through tick vats without being roped.
"Had it not been for that little Cracker horse to rope these cattle and calves with, we wouldn't have any cattle industry," Sumner said.
The cattle industry prospered. Ranchers bred for bigger cows and needed bigger horses to hold them. Cracker horses began to be phased out for herding duties in favor of quarter horses, all-terrain vehicles and even SUVs.
By 1989 there were only about 100 Cracker horses left. Concerned individuals formed the Florida Cracker Horse Association and began advocating for the breed.
A companion group, the Florida Cracker Cattle Association, also formed in 1989. That breed was also introduced by the Spaniards and later nearly wiped out through crossbreeding with the larger Angus, Hereford and Brahmans.
Pretty Tiger Lily
Sumner grew up with Cracker horses but didn't have any at his ranch in recent years. Then he saw a dark mare named Tiger Lily at a horse sale. The horse reminded him of one his grandfather used to ride. He bought her.
In the years since, he has acquired half a dozen more, and also owns between 20 and 30 Florida Cracker cattle. In part, he's doing it to preserve a legacy.
"Horses and cattle," he said, "that's the way they made money. That was the thing that made Florida."
A few dedicated breeders have since nursed the population to 800. The state owns three Cracker horse herds, and there's a yearly auction in Brooksville. In February, Carlton Dudley and Billy Ray Hunter rode Cracker horses from Cockroach Bay to Tallahassee to raise publicity for the breed.
Cracker horses are known for something other than cattle. Unlike a conventional trot, their peculiar gait ensures that one to three hooves are always touching the ground at any given time. The result is an uncommonly smooth ride.
"They'll outwalk a quarter horse like they weren't even there," Sumner said.
The Tallahassee ride achieved its goal. In one of their last acts of the legislative session, Florida lawmakers declared the Florida Cracker horse the state horse.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or email@example.com.