Marsh tacky races take Gullah festival to finish line

astice@islandpacket.comMarch 18, 2012 

A pair of marsh tackies take off at the start of their heat during the annual Marsh Tacky Run in March 2012 on Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island. A large crowd was on hand to watch the races, which are part of the island's Gullah Celebration. A dispute with native islanders over the lineage of some horses apparently has convinced the race organizers not to conduct the event in 2013.

JONATHAN DYER/THE ISLAND PACKET

It isn't often that James Bakker of Charleston gets to ride his 7-year-old marsh tacky gelding, Sage, and just "let him rip."

Sage did just that at the fourth annual Marsh Tacky Run on Sunday at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island, barrelling down the sand to beat out more than 16 other horses for the grand prize.

The beach race, and the thousands of cheering spectators, were a far cry from Sage's usual walks in the woods, Bakker said.

The horses in Sunday's race come from a pool of only 300 known purebred marsh tackies across the country -- most of them in South Carolina, said Michael Marks, president and CEO of the Coastal Discovery Museum, which coordinates the event.

The breed was named the state's official heritage horse last year. And, for the past four years, people have brought their marsh tackies to Hilton Head Island for the run, also serves as the finale to the Gullah Celebration.

"The tie-in is that the marsh tacky, of course, played an important role in Gullah culture," Marks said.

Tackies were ideal for helping cultivate the fields and for transportation in the Lowcountry because they can work for hours in the heat and humidity. They have large heads, narrow chests, short legs and long manes.

The Gullah people used them for entertainment as well. They would ride their horses from house to house during celebrations during Christmas and at the end of planting season. After each year's harvest, they would race their horses on the north shores of Hilton Head for bragging rights.

These days, the winner and runners-up of the annual Marsh Tacky Run also take home trophies.

In second place on Sunday was Sabata, a 9-year-old stallion owned by Marion Gohagan of Scotia, and third place went to 4-year-old mare Southern Breeze, owned by Wylie Bell of Bennettsville.

The run isn't the only competition during the event: Over the past few years, spectators have started a tradition of wearing tacky hats that are even more noticeable than toppers spotted at the Kentucky Derby.

Anne McNear said she and other ladies who live in Windmill Harbour began festooning their straw hats with trinkets and other gaudy touches two years ago. This year, they were invited to sit in a tent sponsored by Red Rocket, a 6-year-old mare, and were asked to pose for plenty of photos when they strolled the beach during breaks in the preliminary rounds.

McNear's crafty cap, piled high with a plastic horse and rider, won the tacky-hat contest, beating out other entrants that included a hat plastered in snack wrappers with a theme of "white trash."

Her prize? "An even tackier sash," Marks said.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

Island marsh tacky race organizers struggle to find suitable date, Oct. 27, 2011

Marsh tacky races celebrate Gullah heritage, Feb. 28, 2011

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