Sea Foam: Race celebrates history of the marsh tacky

February 21, 2011 

Wylie Bell, riding Postell, races Ashley Lowther on Strawberry in a gelding heat of the inaugural Marsh Tacky Run at Mitchelville Beach in 2009 as part of the Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration.


Thanks to retired teacher Sunny Littlejohn of Hilton Head Island for sharing an essay about marsh tackies written by her late husband, Jim Littlejohn.

She sent it because the marsh tacky horse will be featured at two events this weekend as part of the 15th Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration -- the Lowcountry Heritage Breeds Festival, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn; and the third annual Marsh Tacky Run and Exhibition, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Coligny Beach Park.

Jim was a journalist in Beaufort County from the early 1960s until his death at age 71 in 2003. He worked in Beaufort for the Savannah Morning News. After moving to Hilton Head in 1970, he edited Islander magazine, wrote personality profiles and features for Island Events magazine, and was an editor and writer at The Hilton Head News and Carolina Morning News. He was an early member of the Hilton Head Rotary Club, a founding member of the Community Playhouse and an early executive director of the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce.

Sunny doesn't know when this piece about a marsh tacky race was written, or for what publication, but it appears to be from the early 1970s.


By Jim Littlejohn

My name is Bill -- I am a horse by accident of birth, but a marsh tacky by preference, peculiarity and trade.

There are not too many of us hanging around anymore.

At one time, you could go traveling up and down the South Carolina Sea Islands and if you threw a rock in any direction, you were liable to hit one of my family.

As horses go, we are a scrawny lot, I suppose. Our height is rather stumpy, and our ribs are as apt to stick out as those on a New York fashion model.

No one seems to know for sure where we came from.

The most often-heard guess -- and probably the one that comes closest to being true -- is that we descended from the horses brought by the early Spanish explorers -- De Ayllon, De Quexos and company.

It is on record in the Spanish Archives -- so I am told -- that several expeditions explored these waters with the idea of setting up a permanent colony, and at least one of them suffered considerable losses from a major storm and lost several ships and cargoes, including horses.

Of course we could still be Spanish in origin and simply have been the leftovers from other wrecks or pirate attacks. I have always loved to believe this version, anyway. I like to think that there is Arabian blood flowing through my veins -- and that ancestors of mine took part in the great jihad that swept across North Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries.

All I really know about my family is what I heard from my granddaddy. He heard some tales from his folks, I guess, and that's sort of the way it has been -- passing them down from one generation to another. What sociologists call an oral tradition.

Granddaddy worked on Hilton Head Island back before the new Fred Hack-Charles Fraser era. Actually, he had the best job on the island for one of our faith. He was the main shooting tacky for the old hunting lodge at Honey Horn. He only had to work about three months out of the year, serving as a riding horse or occasionally pulling a surrey.

Granddaddy claimed that our branch of the family had been mount horses and carriage horses all the way back to the early English settlers -- and that none of our immediate family ever had to pull a plow.

That's what made him so mad when Daddy married out of the family and went to work on a farm up around Palmetto Dunes.

Granddaddy felt it demeaned the family for any of us to have to pull a plow, but that was the Depression and things were hard.

I didn't come along until pretty late -- about 1956. They tell me that was the year the bridge opened up, but I couldn't know about that.

The horse farming was pretty much over before I got old enough to plow, so all I have ever done, really, is help till a few garden patches.

For several years, I was a mount pony for a family back over on Baygall side, then someone who lived down in Sea Pines finally bought me. I was no youngster by then -- about 7 or 8 as I remember -- but I felt just like a colt to get out of heavy work and just do a little riding now and then.


I guess I was about 12 when they had the first Marsh Tacky Derby.

They had it out on the beach in front of where the Holiday Inn is now. We raced from there all the way down to the Hilton Head Inn and back (today the site of Marriott's Grande Ocean Resort).

Actually, it wasn't strictly a Marsh Tacky Derby. There were a few of us on the lists, but most were either mixed breeds or else were regular riding animals from the stables.

Nobody thought an old animal like me had much of a chance in the race, and there were a number of snide remarks when my owner brought me up to the starting line.

What they didn't know was that I had been running on beaches for most of my life -- and that I knew how to avoid soft sand, crab holes and the hard ripples that will make your hooves hurt if you run hard over them.

Sure enough, at least three of the horses born off the island wallowed up in a patch of soft sand within 100 yards of the starting line. Another one stepped in a gigantic crab hole and narrowly missed breaking his leg.

My cousin Joab the mule had been scheduled to run, but was scratched when nobody could be found who would ride him. And a sleek-looking part-Thoroughbred mare was last seen bolting lickety-split down Pope Avenue, headed for the mainland.

That left the field between me and about four other island horses, two of which were pure-blood tackies, and younger than I.

I was running a good third until we reached the turn-around point. I gained a position there when the lead horse kept on going for about 20 yards, thinking that was the end of the race.

As we headed back toward the finish, the leader managed to keep about a length and a half in front of me until we were within about 150 yards of the tape.

I don't know exactly what happened to this day, but somehow I was able to reach down and come up with an additional source of energy and I began gaining. The younger horse was one of those who had been ragging me before the race -- and when he saw me gaining, he began to panic and tried to put on a final surge. What happened was that in doing so, he broke step and began wasting energy, and I went past him like a freight train.

That was my first and last victory.


We had the races several times after that, but I was getting old, and after a couple of losses, my master took pity and just took me along as an observer.

He moved away a few years ago and sold me to a local farmer, who makes a big deal out of harnessing me up every spring and fall and breaking up a little ground. I think he does it out of kindness. He could hire a tractor to plow for what it costs him to keep me in oats.

I don't mind the work, though. I get a kick out of being a tourist attraction. The young families are particularly fun. They stop their cars on U.S. 278 and get out their cameras, telling their kids, "Look, Johnny! That's something you probably won't ever see again. A horse pulling a plow."

I just wonder what they would think if they knew that I was also a racehorse once. Not only a racehorse, but a winner.

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