November, 2009 – A Horse (Ride) of a Different Color
A Horse (Ride) of a Different Color
By Deborah Sharp
You can’t throw a horseshoe in Wellington, the show jumping capital of the USA, without hitting evidence of equestrian influence. From a street dubbed Paddock Drive, to the polo grounds, to some 50 miles of riding trails, the community is horse-crazy. And the horse community returns the love, turning out annually for Wellington’s famed Winter Equestrian Festival. In 2009 alone, competitors earned more than $5 million in prize money at the international event.
But this isn’t a story about dressage, or hunter-jumpers, or horse barns that cost more than my house. It’s about a different event, though it does take place in the saddle. Only a couple of hours north of Wellington, but culturally a world apart, the Florida Cracker Trail Ride winds its way across the state in February each year. It starts on the Gulf Coast near Bradenton, Fla., and ends six days later with a parade through downtown Fort Pierce. Unlike at the Equestrian Festival, there were no Olympic contenders or million-dollar purses the year I did the ride to research the setting of my latest funny mystery, MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN (Midnight Ink, 2009, $14.95). There were some 200 participants on horses and mules, and riding in wagons.
We did have a raffle for a new saddle. I didn’t win.
Even before I set out on a borrowed mount for the 120-mile ride, I realized I was a long way from the teenager who once galloped through orange groves on what’s now asphalt west of my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The saddle feels a lot harder at age 50-plus than it did when I was 15. Still, I worried less about riding than camping. Ronald Reagan was president the last time I roughed it on the ground in a tent. But my plot unfolds on the trail, and I was prepared to suffer for my art.
I just didn’t realize how much.
The night before heading out, we camped in a cow pasture. A howling wind collapsed my poorly pitched tent. A couple of cowpokes chased it as it went tumbling through camp, spooking all the horses. Rain came down sideways, soaking me from wool cap to wool socks.
”This is really hard,” I sobbed into the cell phone in the morning. ”I wanna come home.’’
”Buck up!” said my tough-love husband. “It’s bound to get better.”
That night, the temperature plummeted to 28 degrees. I’m a south Florida girl, born and bred. I turn up the heat when the mercury dips below 70. In the morning, I thought a caterpillar had camped on the bristles of my toothbrush. Turned out to be what the Northerners call “ice.’’
As freezing temperatures returned for a second night, a fellow rider took pity, and let me sleep in her horse trailer. It didn’t smell too bad, once we’d shoveled out the paddies and sopped up the puddles. I did, however, pluck hay from my private parts for the remainder of the ride.
In its 23rd year, the Cracker Trail ride commemorates cattle drives that once took place across Florida. Some say the word “cracker’’ comes from the ear-splitting cracks of cow whips the pioneers used to move their herds. For my father’s generation and before, the label was a badge of honor.
My own cracker credibility, however, is suspect.
One afternoon, I was setting up camp in a pasture when a big black cow wandered close to my loaner tent. I didn’t want the tent trampled, or cow-pattied upon, so I started yelling.
”Shoo!’’ I flapped my sleeping bag. “Go on, cow. Git!’’
Lowering its head, the cow stared. I flapped. As it turned, coming closer, I caught a view from a different angle. Two dealies dangled, revealing the ”cow’’ was a bull. And that sleeping bag I’d been shaking like a matador with a cape? It was bright red.
Somehow, I don’t see the show crowd at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center fleeing a bull by jumping into the bed of a pickup truck. Maybe they don’t know some other lessons I learned on the Florida Cracker Trail, either: Pack your saddlebags full of Aleve. Always check the rear view before trying to scare the cattle. And, keep your riding boots UPHILL when using the, uh, facilities, in the great outdoors.
Deborah Sharp, a former reporter for USA Today, is the author of the funny, Florida-set ”Mace Bauer Mystery” series. The third book in the series, MAMA GETS HITCHED, comes out next fall. For more infomation, see: http://www.deborahsharp.com/ or contact Deborah Sharp at Debsharp1@gmail.com.