Writing about how to herd cattle with a whip is like taking a guitar lesson through the mail—you don’t really get the picture until you do it for yourself.
However, Doyle Conner, a 6th-generation Floridian and rancher who grew up horseback with whip in hand, was willing to try and describe the action. Simply put, it’s a bit like casting a fly rod.
“You just let the whip drag by your side (as you ride), and when you need to pop it you just throw it forward and pull it back,” says Conner, whose dad taught him the skill and who has passed it on to his own kids.
Florida’s interior has been big cattle country since the 1800s and remains so today. Florida’s horseback herdsmen are known as “cracker cowhunters,” named after their expert use of a whip. Used to roust cattle from dense, tangled vegetation and keep them moving on swampy trails, the tool does not strike the animal. The distinctive crack of a well-placed throw just over their heads usually elicits response.
Whips are also used to communicate. “If I’m riding along and you and I have worked up a system, when you hear me crack that whip you know I’ve found cattle,” Conner says. “And you can come ridin’ to me or you can push the bunch you got, or whatever you need to do.”
While the Spanish vaqueros are better known for their skill with a riata, or lariat, history credits those original cowboys for introducing the whip as well. It was later used by freight wagon teamsters and on cattle drives in the Old West.
Incredibly, the whip is likely the first human invention to break the sound barrier. It’s tapered end moves faster than the speed of sound, which results in a tiny sonic boom—the crack.
Just don’t call it a bullwhip. In cracker country, they use “cow whips,” Conner explains.
A bullwhip, like the one used by the fictional Indiana Jones, is braided into a short handle. The cow whip, also known as a stock whip, is a braided whip attached to a handle, typically sixteen inches long. The longer handle extends its reach, and can help put a little more space between an overly aggressive bovine and a horseman. A well-placed throw of a whip has turned back a charge more than once.