The Journey of a Rescued  Cracker Horse and a Surprise Within

The Journey of a Rescued Cracker Horse and a Surprise Within

Story by Mary Dansak


Meet Justice, a gentle gray pony with a surprising red mane and bright, black eyes. As Justice sees Erica, her trainer, she lifts her head and nickers in welcome anticipation. Justice walks over to Erica and puts her muzzle on Erica’s shoulder. They stand together for a minute, then go about the business of training.

It defies belief that just two months ago, Justice ran wild as part of a herd of free-roaming Florida Cracker Horses.

Cracker Horses, so called because the cattle drivers of the 1930s rode them through the woods cracking whips, arrived in Florida in the mid-16th century along with the Spanish conquistadors. They found favor with both the Native Americans and the pioneers, and over time, escapees formed herds. At one time, thousands of these small, sturdy horses roamed free throughout the territory now known as Florida. Today, very few free-roaming Cracker Horses remain. According to the Equus Survival Trust, a group dedicated to preserving endangered equine breeds, the Florida Cracker Horse population overall is considered “critical,” with an estimated population of just over 1,000.

How did this gray pony go from wild to tame in such a short amount of time? This seemingly miraculous transformation came about through the gentle, systematic method of horse taming known as Parelli Natural Horsemanship, which builds on teaching people to respond to how horses feel, think, act, and play.

Pat Parelli, founder of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and Justice crossed paths when a Florida landowner contacted Parelli about removing a herd of mustangs from his property. The timing of this call coincided with a near 500-year anniversary of Cracker Horses arriving in Florida and the 41st anniversary of Parelli’s first Natural Horsemanship seminar.

Parelli rounded up eight Cracker Horses, including three stallions, for a horse taming event to be held March 3-5, 2023, at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. Before a live audience, he and a team of high-level Parelli certified trainers sought to gain the trust of these horses who had never been handled and who had no previous contact with people. It may sound ambitious, but according to Parelli, “Anything is possible as long as the horse is in charge of the principles and the timeline.”

Parelli has hosted live training events for 41 years. With this situation, he envisioned an opportunity to let people experience the behind-the-scenes gentling of free-roaming horses prior to training.

As with all Parelli events, education and awareness are paramount. “Parelli Natural Horsemanship is about teaching ordinary people to get extraordinary results,” he explained. Its reach extends well beyond training horses.

When the herd, tired and bone thin, was brought to the event, all the horses were rightfully terrified.

“Justice had a high self-preservation instinct,” according to John Baar, the instructor and self-described lifelong student of the horse, who worked with Justice at the event. “She’d gone through a few fences. Mother Nature was loud in her ear.”

Justice’s gray coat showed signs of these battles, displaying scrapes and wounds from the herd, or herds, as there was more than one stallion involved. “She showed the temperament of being a herd leader,” Baar noticed, which perhaps led her to display such protective behavior.

Recognizing and honoring a horse’s distinct personality, or Horsenality®, a term Parelli coined, is part of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship method.

“Through her wariness, Justice was curious,” according to Parelli, who remembered her bright eyes and her perked ears. “Curiosity produces serotonin and dopamine in the brain, whereas fear produces adrenaline and cortisol. Curiosity induces a good learning attitude. That’s why they say laughter is the best medicine.”

Well-seasoned in working with mustangs out West, this was Baar’s first experience with Florida Cracker Horses. “You can definitely see the influence of the Spanish breeds in them, Paso Finos and Andalusians.” Known for their agility, endurance, and hardiness, these horses were integral to the settling of the territory now known as Florida. The breed is now recognized as Florida’s state horse.

Over the course of the three-day event, Justice came to trust Baar, who was able to convince her that he, a human, was not a predator but a partner.

Erica Franklin was one of those people in the audience. Well acquainted with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, Erica employs the Parelli method when working with horses herself. Erica was drawn to Parelli Natural Horsemanship as a child. “It never sat right with me when people gave up on horses, saying they were bad or couldn’t be trained. I loved finding a program where there was never a horse or a human left behind.”

Seeing Justice and the other horses gentling under the skilled direction of the Parelli certified instructors, who’d come from places as far away as Italy and Sweden for the event, confirmed what Erica knew about working with horses. “Nobody got a bite or a kick. None of the horses bucked. The trainers never roped the horses.”

Moved by what she was witnessing, Erica called her friend and client, Katie Waldrep, who not only owns horses but is also the publisher of this magazine.

“You need someone to write a story about what’s going on down here,” Erica told Katie, describing the impressive horsemanship on display at the World Equestrian Center, including the auction of the horses to benefit H.O.O.V.E.S., a program that partners veterans with rescue horses.

Not only was Katie interested in the process, but also, she soon found herself the proud owner of a new horse, a 13-hand pony named Justice, just right for her children.

As anticipated, the event was a success. “This was not about getting the horses ready to ride,” Parelli explained, “it was about getting them to trust. Remember, they aren’t wild horses, they’re feral descendants of domesticated horses. Even though they are born in the wild, they are no different from any other horse. At the end of the event, we went ahead and rode every horse that was fit and big enough to ride. There’s a 13-year-old girl riding one of the stallions, who has since been gelded.”

As part of her purchase package, Justice remained in Ocala for two weeks for further handling before moving to Alabama where Erica would continue taming and training Justice in preparation for her new life as a riding pony.

“Justice responded well to nutrition. Her coat improved, and she gained weight quickly,” according to Erica. She also responded well to love. “She nickers every time she sees me.” As Justice’s health improved, it became apparent a surprise was in the works. Justice was pregnant.

Justice’s story and that of her foal, due to arrive as this article goes to print, are now remarkably different stories than they would’ve been if not for Pat Parelli, John Baar, Erica Franklin, Katie Waldrep, and the many unseen hands behind her salvation.

“Before the event, she really didn’t have much of a future,” Baar said. “Feral horses often end up in kill pens. Horses and humans are very different, opposites actually. Using Natural Horsemanship, we’re able to come together, to harmonize. This affects all our futures.”

“The event was a matter of saving lives, spreading education and awareness, turning these horses’ futures around,” agreed Erica. “It’s all about the safety of the horses and the humans.”

According to Parelli, whose life’s passion and mission has focused on understanding the minds of horses, “The easy part’s the horse; the hard part’s the people. Our Natural Horsemanship method is applicable to how we handle not just horses but each other. It’s all about relationships.”

Baar, summarizing the event, reiterated this sentiment. “In the end, the horses, the people in the audience, and I were all better for the process.”

Justice and her foal are a thriving testament to these words.

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