Sunday, February 11, 2007

20th Annual Forida Cracker Ride

FLORIDA CRACKER TRAIL: Participants train for 20th annual ride

Herald Staff Writer

EAST MANATEE - When Beverly Smith's daughter Megan wrote a speech about her family for school, her mother was intrigued.

She became even more curious when the now 14-year-old began to recite the speech about her surrogate family - her Cracker Trail family, as Megan called it.

"She embraced it," Beverly Smith said of the event, which commemorates the cross-state cattle drives of the 19th century and takes its name from the crack of a cowboy's whip.

For the years Megan rode the Florida Cracker Trail, Beverly Smith stayed home during the weeklong ride spanning 110 miles.

But watching the impact it had on her daughter made her saddle up as well. This year, the 20th annual ride, will be Beverly's eighth.

She serves as secretary for the Florida Cracker Trail Association, and her son Graham has begun riding, too.

"It's a family affair," she said. "You wouldn't think that riding a horse is that great of therapy, but it is."

Atop horses for six days, winding through the Florida landscape, a group of more than 200 riders keep alive the state's ranching history.

From Wyoming to Illinois and Indiana down to Georgia and Tennessee, horse riders head to the Sunshine State for the historic trail ride that begins in Manatee County and snakes through Highlands, St. Lucie, Hardee and Okeechobee counties.

"It's just you," Smith said. "You don't have the telephone calling. You're just so relaxed."

From the youngest of riders to the eldest, true stories and tall tales are passed around fires at night after grueling endurance rides by day.

But the ride is not an easygoing trot, said David Reed, the association's president.

Typically, fewer than half the riders complete six days of eight-hour rides.

"You and your horse both need to be in shape to do this ride," he said.

The trail grows shorter and shorter each year, the expanse of development and urbanization chewing up the pastures and ranches that once ruled this state.

"We're going to try and keep this alive for as long as we can," Reed said. "There's a lot of friendships that have been made on this ride."

Despite the change in scenery, the ride is still a priority and necessity for some, despite the daily grind of life.

"Everyone's always in the car just going, going, going," Smith said. "You come back in such a different mental attitude."

The ride begins with a steak dinner Feb. 17 at Kibler Ranch, 3715 Kibler Ranch Road, in Myakka City, where riders are briefed on guidelines. The night is open to all visitors, who must pay a fee to learn about the ride.

"Ride out," or the official kickoff, begins the following day at 8 a.m. Riders then finish Friday in Fort Pierce, where they celebrate with an awards banquet and live band.

The next day, riders will gather for the Frontier Fest in Fort Pierce, allowing horses to rein over automobiles. The fest runs from noon to 5 p.m. and is free of charge.

Pat's Bar-B-Que Take Out, in Lake Placid, caters the trip, cooking hearty meals along the trail and at the camps each night.

Camps are open to the public to enjoy the nightly music, games, storytelling and ceremonies honoring past trail bosses - the person who oversees the ride.

The Junior Wrangler games feature activities and contacts each night, including the arena night Feb. 21 when younger riders compete on their horses.

The Cracker Trail acts as an incentive for many of the younger riders. Reed said most parents only allow their children to ride if their grades are up to par because they are taken out of school for one week to participate. The incentive pushes them to work harder, he said.

"All these kids are just very well rounded, and they've got good values," Reed said. "It teaches self-sufficiency, self-reliance and teaches these kids to work together."

This will be Reed's daughter Megan's fifth Cracker Trail ride. What the 18-year-old looks forward to, she said, is mounting the horse in the morning and not getting down until night falls.

"You meet cool people," she said. "And you learn a lot about the history of Florida."

Registration is under way, and all interested riders must register by 7:30 a.m. Feb. 18. For those wanting to ride only one or a few days, they must be registered the night before or by 7:30 a.m. the day they ride.

For more information or to register, visit or call Beverly Smith at (941) 831-0359.

Maura Possley, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 2640, or at , secretary, Florida Cracker Trail Association

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