The Lowcountry plays host to some of the tackiest sights you'll ever see, and I'm not talking about socks with sandals or bikini-clad gals in the Piggly-Wiggly aisle. I mean those long-haired, broad-faced creatures found only in South Carolina--our very own Carolina Marsh Tackies.
Recognized in 2010 as the South Carolina State Heritage Horse, the Carolina Marsh Tacky has a long, historic connection to the Lowcountry. Characterized by short legs and necks, narrow chests, and wide foreheads, they are valued for their strong work ethic and easy disposition. The ancestors of this rare breed sailed from Spain with the early settlers of
Port Royal Sound's Santa Elena colony in the late 1500s. When the colony was abandoned two decades later, though, the Spaniard's horses were left behind to fend for themselves. They and their descendants roamed freely through the marshes of the Sea Islands for generations, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. A century later, American colonists began to capture and domesticate some of these wild animals, who had adapted well to life in the Lowcountry.
As feral horses living in the marshland, Marsh Tackies (as they came to be known) developed hardiness, stamina, and maneuverability in tough terrain. Unlike other breeds, they did not hesitate to enter swampy areas, making them an ideal mount for South Carolina militiamen--
like Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion--during the Revolutionary War. Marion and his men could lure British troops into the area's lowlands, knowing that their opponent's horses would panic in the rough, unwelcoming surroundings. Meanwhile, the Tackies' calm demeanors and thick hides kept them unafraid of dark waters and threatening briars.
By the time of the Civil War, enslaved Sea Island residents were utilizing Marsh Tackies for transportation and agricultural work. Managing the horses as a feral herd, locals would simply round them up when needed, choose the ones they wanted, and then set the rest loose again. The horses' service to their country was not yet complete, though. During World War II, U.S. soldiers patrolled the beaches of the Atlantic states on Tackies, protecting the coast by watching for German U-boat attacks.
In addition to fieldwork and transportation, the Lowcountry's favorite horses were also a source of entertainment for those who domesticated them. For generations, Hilton Head Island's Gullah neighborhoods joined together to celebrate Christmas Day and the end of the planting season by holding Marsh Tacky races on the beach. Rather than a mere monetary award, prizes for each year's winner were even better: bragging rights for owning
the island's fastest Tacky! Although racing diminished after Hilton Head's development as a resort community in the late 20th century, it was revived in the early 2010s as a means of celebrating Gullah culture. These more recent races were held on both Hilton Head and Dawfuskie Island beaches, with horses travelling by boat to attend the latter, bridge-less isle. Such events are likely a bygone tradition, though, as the latest races were complicated by the difficulty of determining which horses were full-breed Tackies and thus eligible to participate.
According to the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, there are only about 360 documented horses of this unique breed living today, placing them on the Endangered Species list. Some
suggest that even this number is inflated, and that only 100 pure-breed Tackies exist today. To see for yourself just what makes these State Heritage Horses so special, check out the Smithsonian-affiliated Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. The museum's friendly Marsh Tackies can often be found grazing in their fenced meadow, and are always happy to greet visitors. You might just say they're outstanding in their field!
Marsh Tackies are favorite characters in my second Delta & Jax mystery novel, The Sea Turtle's Curse. Learn more at https://www.susandiamondriley.com/the-sea-turtle-s-curse.