Meet the Marsh Tacky Horse

The critically endangered Marsh Tacky horse breed is hoofing its way to a comeback.

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by Jeannette Beranger/The Livestock

If you’re not from the low country of South Carolina, odds are you aren’t familiar with the Marsh Tacky. For starters, if you’re wondering why a horse would have the word “tacky” in its name, you have to look back into history to learn that the name is derived from the English word for “cheap” or “common.” For most of their history, Marsh Tackies were the most common horse in the swampy and marshy regions of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. They were used for riding, pulling, and anything else horsepower was needed for. The breed could be found from as far north as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to as far south as St. Simons Island, Georgia, until the advent of the automobile. As the car replaced the horse, the Marsh Tacky began to disappear. Until recently, the ancient breed was thought to have gone extinct; but through the dedicated work of those committed to preserving the Marsh Tacky, the population remained intact, and continues to grow today.

Although the exact origin of the Marsh Tacky is unclear, it can be attributed to Spanish stock that arrived on the coast and islands of South Carolina in the 1500s, brought over by Spanish explorers and settlers. A number of Spanish horse populations along the southeast coast thrived and became feral herds. (Some of the more famous herds comprise the Banker ponies of North Carolina.) A further influx of Spanish horses made their way to Charleston, South Carolina, through the Native American deerskin trade. Spanish horses were acquired at the St. Augustine Spanish settlement (in modern-day Florida), and were used as pack animals along the trade routes of the Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw tribes. The horses were sold once they arrived in Charleston, bolstering the population of Spanish horses that would become the Marsh Tacky. Until their near extinction in the late 20th century, Tackies were managed primarily as feral herds on the low country and coastal islands, rounded up by local residents whenever there was a need for horses.

Breed Insight

The Marsh Tacky is a sturdy, well-balanced, and easy-keeping horse with a sharp mind. Owners will attest to the ease of training that’s characteristic of the breed. Newly broke horses can often be ridden and worked within weeks of having a saddle placed on their backs. The Tacky’s thoughtful approach to novel items and experiences reduces the likelihood of panic and flight, unlike high-strung breeds. Famous naturalist John James Audubon noted during his travels in South Carolina that local Marsh Tacky horses were “tough as pine knots.”

In a study by Mississippi State University’s Gaited Locomotive Research Program, it was found that the Marsh Tacky has a unique gait, named the “Swamp Fox Trot,” which contributes to its ability to be worked or ridden all day without either the horse or rider tiring.

Their gentle nature and easily managed size (13.5 to 15 hands) historically made Marsh Tackies the preferred mount for women and children, but their strength, prowess, and fearlessness in the field also made them popular working animals, utilized for hunting and herding cattle. Today, the breed continues in its traditional role as a work and pleasure animal, but also shows great promise in competitive endurance and trail riding.

Marsh Tackies come in a variety of colors consistent with other Colonial Spanish horses. Historically, there may have been some color patterns, such as paints, within the population, but these patterns weren’t maintained, and in recent times aren’t seen within the breed. The more common colors remaining in Marsh Tackies today are dun, bay, blue roan, dun roan, red roan, sorrel, chestnut, black, and grulla.

A History of Hardiness

Marsh Tackies have played a significant role in South Carolina’s history. During the American Revolution, they were used by many of the troops marshalled by the famous “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion. Not only was Marion a great tactician, but his troops inadvertently had the additional technical advantage of being mounted on horses superbly adapted to the rough and swampy terrain of the region. British troops mounted on larger European breeds may have been at a disadvantage in trying to maneuver through the dense and wild swamps of the low country.

In recognition of the breed’s role in the American Revolution, a Marsh Tacky has been named an honorary member of several South Carolina chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Tackies were used again during the Civil War, and after the conflict, they became an integral part of agricultural life in South Carolina and Georgia, particularly within the African American Gullah community. The horses were used for everything, from delivering the mail, to bringing folks to church, to plowing the fields.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Marsh Tacky enjoyed popularity as a favored hunting horse of the rich and elite communities within the low country. Money couldn’t buy a better hunting horse for the local terrain, and many dignitaries were known to have ridden Tackies. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed Auldbrass Plantation in South Carolina to include specially sized stables for the owner’s Marsh Tacky hunting horses.

During World War II, Tackies were used as beach patrol mounts on the Southern coast to protect the shores from the threat of German U-boats and potential landings of enemy troops or spies.

Up until the mid-1900s, Marsh Tacky racing derbies were a popular local event held on Hilton Head Island. In 2009, this tradition was revisited during the annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration, and beach races featuring the breed continue to draw crowds of people eager to see the historic horses in action.

Tackies Today

Today, the majority of Tackies belong to hunters and long-time fanciers and breeders who’ve had these horses in their families for generations. The remaining horses from these breeders retained their ability to thrive in the challenging environments of coastal South Carolina, and have stamina in the field that’s second to none. Owners often comment on the built-in “woods sense” of the breed, and how the horses have a natural way of traversing water obstacles and swamps without panicking or getting stuck in the mud. “If a horse panics in the water, then it’s not a Marsh Tacky,” says long-time breeder Jody Platt. Others attest to their surefootedness, smooth ride, and almost thoughtful approach to traveling in the field.

The Marsh Tacky remains a living piece of history in its native region. The breed has endured for more than four centuries, and has the potential to survive far beyond that, as long as enthusiasts and conservationists work together to preserve what remains of this historic treasure. The state of South Carolina named the Marsh Tacky its official “heritage horse” in recognition of the breed’s place in the state’s history. In 2007, the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association was created with the mission to support and promote the breed. Following the formation of the breed association, The Livestock Conservancy received a grant to continue fieldwork and create a studbook for the Marsh Tacky. The studbook was completed in 2009, and is still managed by The Livestock Conservancy.

The future of the Marsh Tacky is looking brighter as a new generation of breeders becomes involved with the horses. In 2018, there were more than 400 Tackies, and the population continues to grow, as does the breed’s popularity. Visit the Carolina Marsh Tacky website or The Livestock Conservancy website to learn more about this historic breed.

Conservation Efforts

The Livestock Conservancy began an investigation into the Marsh Tacky breed through a lead from members of the Florida Cracker Horse Association (FCHA). These folks had heard of “Tacky” horses in South Carolina that were very similar to their Florida Cracker horse (another strain of Colonial Spanish horse) and decided to see for themselves. Initial inspection showed that the Marsh Tackies did in fact resemble Florida Cracker horses, but had some distinct differences. There were very few Marsh Tackies left, according to remaining breeders. Upon returning to Florida, the FCHA members contacted Dr. Phillip Sponenberg — a leading authority on equine genetics, and an expert on Colonial Spanish horses — to shed more light on the breed and help create a strategy to conserve the few remaining Tackies.

During the spring of 2006, Sponenberg, along with staff members from The Livestock Conservancy, made a trip to South Carolina to begin the field investigation and determine if the Marsh Tacky could be a surviving descendant of the Spanish horses that arrived in the Americas as early as the 1500s.

“Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance in the New World,” Sponenberg says. “They descend from horses introduced from Spain during the age of the conquest of the New World. They’re a direct remnant of the horses of the golden age of Spain, and that type is mostly or wholly extinct now in Spain. Our Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone.”

Their relative isolation in coastal and lowland regions of South Carolina contributed to the enduring Spanish qualities in the Marsh Tacky breed. Initial field inspection of a number of Marsh Tackies revealed that many were still very consistent with the old Colonial Spanish type. Over the centuries, the horses adapted to the environment and, through relative isolation, became a unique strain within the Colonial Spanish horse population. DNA samples were taken from nearly 100 Tackies to increase the understanding of how these horses are related to other Colonial Spanish strains, including the Florida Cracker, Spanish Mustang, Spanish Barb, Sulphur, Choctaw, and Wilbur-Cruce horses, among others. Results from these samples were used to enhance the strategy for population management and help maintain the population’s remaining genetic diversity.

Jeannette Beranger is the senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She maintains rare breeds on her North Carolina farm, and is the co-author of An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.

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