One of our librarians has created a display in the SC Room showcasing the marsh tacky, a local breed of horse. Because we have recieved several calls asking for more information, we have included an article on the blog about tackies so those patrons who cannot come to the library can also enjoy the information.
The Marsh Tacky has endured for over 400 years living in the rural marshes of the South Carolina Low Country. Found as far north as Myrtle Beach and south as St. Simon’s Island, they are believed to be the descendants of Spanish horses brought to the islands in the 1500s. “Tacky” is derived from the English word for “cheap” or “common”. Theses horses are easily caught and trained and were used for riding and pulling until replaced by the automobile. Recently, due to threat of extinction, there has been a resurgence of interest in the breed.
Conventional wisdom claims that Marsh Tackies are descendants of Spanish horses that were “drop offs” to the coast and islands of South Carolina by Spanish explorers, descendants of Spanish conquistadors’ Andalusion steeds, or stock brought over in the 1500s by Spanish settlers. Naturalist Nancy Cathcart theorized the horses are actually a mixture of Seminole and Chickasaw horses, crossbred with the English Thoroughbred.
However they arrived, a number of populations along the Southeast coast became feral herds. Surviving in remote, isolated regions of the lowlands of South Carolina, the horses adapted to the environment and became a unique strain within the Colonial Spanish horse population. DNA samples have increased understanding of how this horse relates to Spanish strains such as the Florida Cracker, North Carolina Banker, Spanish Mustang and Choctaw and have proven the Carolina Marsh Tacky to be a separate breed with its own unique characteristics.
Tackies’ manes and tails are long and full. Standing 13.5 – 15 hands, they have deep and well-muscled narrow chests giving them stamina over long distances. Instead of rounded hindquarters, theirs slope downward, allowing tight turns in cane breaks and woods. In the past, the horses fed on marsh grass and not much else. Today, Tackies are believed to be larger than their ancestors due to better care.
Common colors of the Carolina Marsh Tacky are dun, bay, blue roan, dun roan, red roan, sorrel, chestnut, black, and grulla (blue-gray). Some have primitive dun markings, such as dorsal stripes and zebra leg stripes. Historically, there were color patterns – such as paints – within the population, but these patterns have disappeared.
Intelligent with gentle dispositions, sure-footed and superbly adapted to the southern humidity and coastal marshes, Marsh Tackies remain calm in water and thoughtfully approach novel items and experiences. The breed has a natural way of traversing the water and mud of the Southern swamps and marshes. Instead of panicking and floundering, they plow through mud and swim through chest-deep water. Quick short steps keep them from becoming mired in pluff mud. Tackies can be ridden into normally inaccessible woods and marshes and don’t flinch when a gun is fired from the saddle. They can survive on marsh grass and forage that other horses won’t touch. These horses, born into the wild, are quickly broken, easily trained and prove to be docile.
The Marsh Tacky remains a living piece of South Carolina’s history. During the American Revolution, Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion and his troops used their own mounts in campaigns against the British, and the Marsh Tacky was the common horse of the region. Being superbly adapted to the dense brush and marshes of the Lowcountry proved a significant advantage over the larger European breeds of the British troops.
For farm families, especially after the Civil War, the Marsh Tacky became an important component of agricultural life on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Tackies were transportation, field horses, hunting and herding mounts. Strong and fearless, their gentle nature and small size made them the preferred mount for ladies and children. During the economic hardship that followed the Civil War, families – particularly in the Gullah community – who didn’t have much, did have a horse to help turn the ground, ride to church, deliver mail, haul wood, etc. Tackies were used to deliver messages and death notices, and children rode them to school. They were often considered part of the family.
During World War II, Tackies known as “beach pounders” were used by the US Coast Guard to survey the coast for enemy activity and submarines. In the 1940s and 1950s, feral and farm-raised Tackies were used to herd cattle on the undeveloped lands of Kiawah Island, St. Helena, Daufuskie and Hilton Head. Local inhabitants rounded up groups of horses on the islands whenever there was a need. Derby races were popular on Hilton Head, where Tackies would race a beach stretch, round an obstacle and return across the finish line. Winners were presented with roses, much as the Kentucky Derby winners of today.
Eventually as telephones, automobiles, and tractors became more widespread, island culture changed and farming declined. Tackies were set aside for prettier breeds and their populations plummeted as marshlands were developed. But the old Spanish horses continued to survive in remote rural areas. It is now believed that the breed is so rare it is in danger of becoming extinct.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) estimates that there are fewer than 150 pure Marsh Tackies remaining on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, but the future is beginning to look bright for these critically endangered horses. The ALBC is studying the breed and helping develop strategies to preserve it.
The formation of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association (CMTA), the creation of a studbook and registry, DNA authentication and an effort to get the Marsh Tacky recognized as the state horse (sponsored by state Representative Catherine Ceips) will hopefully attract attention to the plight of this breed.
Scientific studies include: ALBC’s field investigation to census and document remaining horses; the Equus Survival Trust to take photographs and DNA samples (in cooperation with ALBC and Texas A&M); efforts of the Gaited Locomotive Research Program to acquire a better understanding as to why these horses can work or be ridden all day without the horse or its rider tiring.
Marsh Tackies are still treasured in traditional roles by hunters and riders of the backcountry, and the breed shows great promise in endurance competitions. Horse breeders and enthusiasts are coming together to save the Tacky. It is estimated that the population will have to increase to about 1,000 to ensure survival. Such breeders as D.P. Lowther (Ridgeland), Ed Ravenel (Yonges Island), David Grant and Phil Hayes (Carolina Marsh Tacky Outfitters) and Bernie Wright (Penn Center) are getting the word out about Marsh Tackies and keeping the breed going The immediate goal of the breeders and the CMTA is to induce interest in owning and riding them. Recently, there have been news stories and articles highlighting Marsh Tackies, considered to be “a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone”.
Written by Molly, SC Room, 5/2008
Information taken from the following websites and articles:
“Breeders Try to Save Marsh Tackies, Gentle Horses Made Tough by Centuries on Islands”,
Bruce Smith, AP Press, 4/15/2008
“Carolina Marsh Tacky”, Wikipedia, 5/21/2008
Carolina Marsh Tacky Outfitters website
“A Dying Breed: Marsh Tackies” 4/15/2008
“Group Works to Save Fading Marsh Tackies”, Bo Peterson, Charleston Post & Courier,
“Marsh Tackies” 10/18/2007
“Marsh Tackies Not Mere Lore” by Sandra Walsh, The Beaufort Gazette, 7/3/2005
“The Marsh Tacky Horse – A Lowcountry Legend”, Jeannette Beranger, 12/11/2007
“The Marsh Tacky – Yesterday and Today, Jeannette Beranger, American Livestock Breeds
Conservancy, 5/30/2008, http://www.carolinamarshtacky.com/about.shtml