By James A. Jones Jr. | Bradenton Herald
EAST MANATEE — Muddy, chilly, wind-swept Kibler Ranch took on new life Friday, as 160 riders converged with their trucks and horse trailers for the start of the 28th annual Florida Cracker Trail cross-state ride.
Riders will head east from Kibler Ranch, located about 15 miles east of Interstate 75, along State Road 64 starting at 10 a.m. today, and after a series of day-long rides, are expected to arrive in Fort Pierce on Feb. 20.
A sign on the south side of S.R. 64 across from the Cracker Trail campground asks the question “what’s for dinner?” The answer is, of course, beef, a reminder of the original purpose of the cross-state rides. In pioneer days these were cattle drives. Now, it’s just horses, and riders, and maybe a few mules, but the historic heritage remains important to participants.
First-year Cracker Trail Association president Lynn Carlson of Myakka City wasn’t sure how her horse, Calypso, would take to trailing other horses riders. In previous rides, Calypso has been a lead horse.
The association also has a new trail boss this year, Suzanne Park of Englewood.
Park has participated in 11 rides, and her main goal is that riders and horses stay safe, and have a good time.
Riders often camp at ranches along the way, but they will also be stopping at Cracker Trail Elementary School near Sebring, to talk to students about the history of Florida’s cattle industry.
As part of the final preparations for the rideout, Norma DeSear and Hope Freeman of the Florida Department of Agriculture made sure the horses were healthy and had their vaccinations. After they checked each horse, they applied a marker of colored chalk just above the horse’s tail.
Riders came in all ages, and from places near and far.
They ranged from four school students called “wranglers” to folks like 70-year-old Jimmy Howell of Okeechobee, who was driving a covered wagon pulled by his mule “Jed.”
“I’ve been wanting to do this for 15 or 20 years. This was on my bucket list,” Howell said.
Also traveling by mule is Ted Gough of Mount Bridges, Ontario. Gough has been riding “Ray J” for 15 years.
Traveling by horse were Calvin Barfield of Conway, S.C., and Mike Mulligan of Waxhaw, N.C.
“This is living,” Barfield said, decked out in cowboy hat and chaps, and sitting in a lawn chair, before passing a box of brownies to Mulligan, a circuit rider with Carolinas Cowboy Church of Lancaster, S.C.
Mary Ann Lictenberger of Ocala would agree.
She was taking her horse “Starbucks” on the Cracker Trail for the first time.
“It’s an adventure,” Lictenberger said.