Why Cracker Horses?

Not all breeds of horses are suited for this specialized therapeutic work which all takes place on the ground—most of the interactions with the horses at liberty, that is, free to wander and interact as they see fit with no halters or ropes.Indeed, after initially working with several other breeds, the staff at the Equine Education Center at Forever Florida, the 4700-acre wildlife sanctuary in Osceola County, has found that Florida Cracker horses are singularly qualified to do equine-assisted psychotherapy in this form due to their characteristics and qualities which have been retained from the original horses introduced into the North American continent in 1521.

So what traits make the Florida Cracker horses so well-qualified?Dean Van Camp, who has over 40 years of experience training horses and has been working with the large Cracker herd at Forever Florida since 2002, states that this breed is so well-suited for this type of therapeutic work due to its unique genetic history.Van Camp explains, “The ancestors of these horses ran feral throughout the state of Florida for many generations.More than any other breed, Crackers have incredible natural survival skills which make them more attentive, focused and reactive to their environment and to humans they interact with.They are also smaller and less intimidating.Then there is the special training that we provide them.”Referring to Sandra Wise, the licensed psychologist who is the other half of the horse training team at Forever Florida, Van Camp adds, “Dr. Wise and I train these therapy horses to be safe, to have manners and to be respectful of humans, but our goal is to leave as much horse in the horse as possible—that way they will respond to clients and interact freely, giving all kinds of feedback that helps the person learn things about themselves, their emotional make-up, and their problems.”

All of the Cracker horses used in the equine-assisted mental health programs at Forever Florida are pasture bred and pasture born on the Crescent J Ranch, a working cattle ranch adjacent to the wildlife conservancy, and they live as much as possible exactly like their ancestors.They are not clipped, blanketed, or shod.Unless they are involved in an equine-assisted session or a training lesson, they are free to wander and graze in the large pastures.They are a part of the largest herd of registered Florida Cracker horses in the world.Because of their unique natural history and their current life style, this breed has retained a strong survival instinct, unlike many other breeds of domesticated horses, which have been subjected to selective breeding programs, often aimed at honing skills needed for competitive horse show events. The Crackers have retained their strong survival instinct and their sense of “cautious-curiosity,” making them uniquely qualified for our equine-assisted learning/psychotherapy programs, which require a fine-tuned sensitivity to the environment and to the subtleties of human behavior.

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