At long last, beloved marsh tackies win race for recognition

June 5, 2010 

David Grant riding Holly was the overall winner during the Marsh Tacky races in February at Mitchelville Beach.


  • MARSH TACKIES By Hervey Allen From "Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Lowcountry" by DuBose Heyward and Hervey Allen, a book of poetry published by the MacMillan Co., 1922: Browsing on the salty marsh grass, Barrel-ribbed and blowsy-bellied, With a neigh as shrill as whistles And their mouths red-raw from thistles, I have seen the brown marsh tackies, Hiding in the swamps at Kiawah, With the gray mosquito patches Gory on their shaggy thatches. Balky, vicious, and degenerates, They are small as Spanish jennets, But their sires were with El Tarab, When he conquered Andalusia For the Prophet and the Arab; And they came with Ponce de Leon, When the Spaniard made a peon And a Christian of the Carib. Peering from palmetto thickets At some fort's coquina wickets, Startled Indians saw them grazing, Thunder-stamping and amazing As the beasts from other stars, When they galloped down savannas, And their masters seemed centaurs With the new white metal blazing. Thus they came, these little beasts, With the men-at-arms and priests, In the west with Coronado When he reached the Colorado, In the east with bold De Soto In the search for El Dorado, And they packed the bells and toys That the chieftains loved like boys; Struggling through the swamps and briars After dons and tonsured friars; Dying in the forests dismal, Till the shrill of silver clarion Brought the buzzards to the carrion Round the smoke of lonely fires In a continent abysmal. So De Soto left them dying, Heedless of their human crying; Here he turned them loose to die Underneath a foreign sky; But they lived on thicket dross, On the leaves and Spanish moss -- And I wonder, and I wonder, When I hear the startled thunder Of their hoofs die down the reaches Of these Carolina beaches.

Our poor little Lowcountry marsh tacky was loaded down with baggage when it finally crossed the finish line last week.

But after years of failed attempts, the General Assembly passed a bill naming the marsh tacky South Carolina's official state heritage horse.

This sturdy breed, left on the sea islands by Spaniards 500 years ago, did what it has always done. It eased through the thickets and stepped lightly through the bog of a floor debate that only in South Carolina could manage to include Jesus Christ, the mule, chewing tobacco, corn liquor, Clint Eastwood and Festus.

It had to survive the whim of a stubborn legislator who said the marsh tacky is "ugly."

And when the House gave final approval to the Senate bill Tuesday, it was lugging the "mule amendment" that killed it three years ago. So the bill created to honor the indigenous marsh tacky, the sensible horse that helped "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion win America's freedom and enabled the Gullah to survive after the Civil War, also names the generic mule South Carolina's official heritage work animal.

"We had to take a little kick of the mule to get the marsh tacky, but that's OK," said Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston, whose family has hunted and penned cows off marsh tackies for eight generations.

The breed once ran wild through the isolated Lowcountry but had neared extinction as tractors, trucks, four-wheelers and development took its place.

On the way to becoming a state symbol, it has become the darling of races on Hilton Head Island beaches. A marsh tacky named Molly was named an honorary member of an Upstate chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

More important, it now has a pedigree registry, breeding standards, a studbook, a group of supporters called the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, an official gait named the "Swamp Fox Trot," and endorsement by the S.C. Horsemen's Council. It's getting a breeding program with the help of Texas A&M University. And it's included in the fold of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which documents it as a colonial Spanish horse and confirms the existence of 252 marsh tackies.


D.P. Lowther of Ridgeland and a couple of others are credited with saving the breed.

But when it comes to the legislation, we have an elementary school librarian's influence on a young, voracious reader to thank.

As a child, Jackie McFadden of Rock Hill was entranced by the mystery of feral horses in "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry.

"My parents took me to the Outer Banks to find the horses," McFadden said.

Then, while working on her third-grade South Carolina history project, McFadden told librarian Francis Herholtz at Ebinport Elementary School that she wished South Carolina had wild horses.

"She said we do but nobody knows about them," McFadden said.

Soon the McFaddens were loaded in the car again, this time scanning the fields and yards of Johns Island for marsh tackies.

They found them, tied by rope to small stakes in the ground -- a common sight on Hilton Head in the 1970s, when some might have a foggy memory of a nightspot off Marshland Road called the Marsh Tacky Lounge.

As an adult, McFadden studied the marsh tacky's amazing history. And in her job as a reference librarian at Winthrop University, a document crossed her desk in 2007 showing that the state legislature defeated a marsh tacky bill sponsored by Catherine Ceips, a former state representative and senator from Beaufort.

"I was just shocked," McFadden said.

She got her neighborhood state representative involved. As a boy, Rep. Gary Simrill spent a lot of time at his aunt's house behind the McFadden home. He was almost like her little brother. In this year's legislative session, Simrill steered the Senate bill sponsored by Wes Hayes of Rock Hill -- with Sens. Tom Davis of Beaufort and Clementa Pinckney of Ridgeland among the co-sponsors -- safely through the House.


The bill had to outrun a mule amendment offered by Rep. Ken Kennedy of Greeleyville. He is retiring after 19 years in the House and asked his colleagues to let him ride into the sunset on a mule.

"The mule built the United States of America," Kennedy said. "Give the mule its rightful place in South Carolina."

He had photos of mules flashed up on a screen in the House chamber.

"Clint Eastwood could ride that mule," he said. "It's beautiful. Do you remember the (television show) 'Gunsmoke'? Festus rode a mule."

Rep. Grady Brown, D-Bishopville, asked: "Did you ever follow the south-bound end of a north-bound mule?"

Kennedy said he was not familiar with that.

Brown asked, "Do you know the difference between 'gee' and 'haw'?"

"I think 'haw' is 'stop,' right?" Kennedy said.

"No," Brown said. "The mule recognizes the words 'gee' and 'haw' to go left or right."

Then, Rep. Lester P. Branham Jr., a retired minister from Lake City, got into it.

Branham: "Mr. Kennedy, did you know there was a good chewing tobacco named Brown's Mule?"

Kennedy: "No, sir, I didn't ever venture that far. I did a lot of things, but I never chewed tobacco."

Branham: "Mr. Kennedy, weren't you raised in Williamsburg County?"

Kennedy: "Yes, sir. But we were the corn liquor capital of the world."

Branham: "No, no. Berkeley County was that, not Williamsburg."

Branham then mentioned a bill to establish an annual State Day of Prayer in South Carolina.

Kennedy: "Pastor Branham, now I'm not a Bible scholar like you. You've been preaching a long time. Did you save any souls?"

Branham: "No, sir, the Lord does that."

Kennedy: "Didn't Jesus ride a mule into ..."

Branham: "No, sir. No, sir. He rode a donkey."

Kennedy: "But the mule is a byproduct of -- isn't it -- of the donkey?"

Branham: "Yes, sir."

Kennedy: "So really if you look at the mule, there is even a more historical reason ... I think that all Christians across this state would applaud me for doing this. I think that they can relate to the mule being a byproduct of the donkey that Jesus rode into -- where?"

Branham: "He rode into Jerusalem."

They ended with a laugh when Kennedy was asked if he knew what a male donkey is called.

"I don't want to say," Kennedy said. "There are too many of them in here."

Others might agree. They say the legislature wasted time on trivial junk. Since when is our history, culture and heritage trivial junk? They spent less than 30 minutes debating the bill and no time writing it. McFadden did that.

Kennedy's mule amendment was approved. The bill made it back through both chambers and now awaits the governor's signature.

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