Equine debate: Who decides what a marsh tacky is?

astice@islandpacket.comMarch 24, 2012 

Before their falling out, D.P. Lowther and Mike Cohen Sr. shared one thing -- a deep and abiding love for the small, native horse known as the marsh tacky.

They partnered to preserve the breed that had been a defining part of their childhood.

Cohen Sr. loaned his stud Starbright to sire colts with some of Lowther's mares to ensure the survival of the horse the Spanish brought to the Lowcountry five centuries ago.

But their shared love of the animal wasn't enough to keep the men working together.

Lowther insists he's trying to protect the horse by strategically breeding and documenting them.

Cohen Sr. says Lowther, through the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, has set himself up as the only one who can determine whether a marsh tacky is authentic. Lowther's efforts, Cohen Sr. said, have excluded "true original" marsh tackies that have been entwined in Gullah culture for generations.

Now, Cohen and Lowther are divided by what once united them.

PRESERVING THE BREED

There are fewer than 280 marsh tackies.

D.P. Lowther of Ridgeland owns about 100 of them.

He said he fell in love with the breed as a kid growing up on a farm where he rode tackies to herd cattle and hunt in the days before livestock were required to be fenced in.

When he got older, he began filling up his own stables. In 1949, he bought several marsh tackies on Hilton Head Island and bred the horses to be bigger, with larger chests and longer legs than the typical marsh tacky.

"I wouldn't let them inbreed," Lowther said of his herd. "I kept changing studs until I got a lot of the characteristics I wanted."

In the Gullah Celebration's Marsh Tacky Run on March 18 at Coligny Beach, "most all of the horses out there was my horse or kin to my horse," Lowther said.

A CLOSER FIT?

Some say Lowther, who also is president of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, now decides which horse is a marsh tacky and which is not.

One of them is Mike Cohen Sr., a native Hilton Head islander who also grew up with the breed.

Cohen Sr. remembers watching his father race marsh tackies on Mitchelville Beach. The prize: bragging rights for the next year. The horses worked hard for their owners, pulling plows through fields of corn, watermelon and okra and carrying families in buggies. On holidays, they were part of the celebration and were ridden from house to house.

But that style of life was fading.

As the island developed, fewer native islanders farmed. The horses fell out of favor and their stock dwindled.

The Marsh Tacky Run became part of the Gullah Celebration four years ago to honor yet another tradition that native islanders were losing.

When Cohen Sr. showed up with a stud and a mare last week, event organizers called Beaufort County sheriff's deputies to keep him and his son Mike Cohen Jr. from stepping onto the sand with their horses.

The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association and the Coastal Discovery Museum said the Cohens didn't follow any of the rules for entering the horses in the race -- rules agreed to by Gullah Celebration leaders. Those rules included submitting a hair sample, becoming an association member and filling out a race entry form by the Feb. 15 deadline.

Cohen Sr. says he sent in samples years ago and never heard back.

A sample from one of the horses he took to the beach, a stud named Sonny, had been sent to a labtwo years earlier for testing, according to a document provided by Lowther that Cohen Sr. said he has never seen. Testing was done at the Animal Genetics Lab at Texas A&M University in August 2010. It revealed that Sonny "might actually represent what the Tackies came from" and that he is the "closest fit ... to Spanish-type horses," according to lab results analyzed by clinical professor E. Gus Cothrain. However, Sonny didn't match the profile of registered marsh tackies, Cothran concluded.

For Cohen Sr., the analysis proves that Sonny is a "true original marsh tacky."

"(Lowther) is breeding them bigger -- that's his way," Cohen Sr. said. "They are trying to not let us back in the system because our true marsh tacky will not show the same DNA they've got."

For Cohen Jr., who planned to ride Sonny in the race, the analysis shows his horse is a direct descendant of the breed that was integral to Gullah culture and to his family.

"This isn't the Kentucky Derby," he said. "This is a Gullah race, and it's supposed to be for fun.

"We were just trying to ... race our horses and show what we've got."

DEFINING THE BREED

Marsh tackies were brought to the islands from Spain in the 1500s. They were ideal for plowing fields and for transportation in the Lowcountry because they hold up well in the heat and humidity.

Cothran, the analyst at the Texas lab, said there could be sister populations of marsh tackies that are genetically different, he said.

"Two horses could be the same animal historically but look quite different 50 or 150 years later," Cothran said.

The reference group of marsh tackies Cothran used to compare Sonny with came from the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, which maintains the registry of marsh tackies and works closely with the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association.

"A breed is basically any group of animals that a collection of people say is a breed," Cothran said. "Biologically, the definition is a group of animals selected by man that breed true for those characteristics. You can set your definition very strictly or more loosely. It is a human construct."

A FALLING OUT

The stud book and registry documenting all marsh tacky stallions and mares was officially closed by the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association on Aug. 18, 2010. The marsh tacky became South Carolina's heritage horse a year later.

Jeannette Beranger of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy said other horses could still get on the list if their owners make a strong case. To be included, horses must pass a visual inspection and have a DNA sample to prove they're purebred.

Cohen Sr. has not done that for any of the six horses he owns, she said.

The only Cohen horse the conservancy has on record was a stud named Starbright, who recently died. The Cohens also did not notify the conservancy of his death.

Beranger said Cohen Sr. and his son "became very angry" when they were told Sonny did not fit the marsh tacky breed. She said the conservancy has not heard from them since.

The conservancy has no idea who Sonny's parents are, and it would be "inappropriate and inaccurate" to deem him a missing link in marsh tacky ancestry, she said.

"The horse could be something from an outside population with Spanish influence since we have no idea where he came from originally," she said.

Cohen Sr. claims Starbright sired Sonny -- meaning he comes from the same stud that fathered many of the colts in Lowther's herd.

Others who have tried to join the association also report problems with Lowther and with registering their horses with Beranger.

Clyde Scott of Hardeeville said he bought a marsh tacky that he tried to have registered under the association's guidelines. He said he had difficulty contacting Beranger, and that when she called him back, she said his horse didn't qualify but provided no documentation.

"It's like they aren't registering horses that don't belong to (Lowther)," Scott said. "He's got the whole thing wrapped up to make money, I'm sure. He doesn't want any competition for selling colts."

Of Scott's horse, Lowther said testing proved that it "wasn't (a) marsh tacky."

Scott counters that there's no such thing as a full-blooded marsh tacky.

"If all those horses were tested like they were supposed to do, they'd find that they're all mixed up," Scott said. "They're scrub horses."

Anthony Cohen, a second cousin to Mike Cohen Jr. and son of Gullah storyteller Louise Cohen, said he tried to join the association but "just got the run-around."

He didn't own any marsh tackies at the time, but wanted to support the organization because the breed is a part of his life and culture. He said he didn't receive a membership packet and, after about a year of trying, asked and received a refund of his dues, which costs $40 per year for an individual.

He doesn't go to the annual Marsh Tacky Run anymore.

"I think it's quite unfair, not only for Mike but for the whole Gullah Celebration," he said. "It's nothing like we're running out there for big money. We're doing it for fun because that's the way it was back then, with our grandparents and our great-grandparents."

PROTECTING A TRADITION

Lowther denies the claims. He said he asked Anthony Cohen to join the association but doesn't know if he followed through.

He wants every horse that is a marsh tacky registered, he said, adding that the association only participates in the Marsh Tacky Run because it was invited by the Gullah Celebration Committee. Charles Young III, Gullah Celebration Committee chairman, said the committee's board asked him not to comment.

Because some horses owned by native islanders were not registered marsh tackies and therefore not allowed to run under the rules, organizers considered a separate race for native islanders. Any horse they owned could enter. But Gullah Celebration members did not favor the idea, said Coastal Discovery Museum president and CEO Michael Marks.

"They could race what they want to, and it would be their race," Lowther said. "But in a marsh tacky race, I'm not going to race a horse that has not been identified and registered with the association. It's got to have health papers, DNA testing, and a committee has to approve it.

"I'm going to protect the association," Lowther said.

Scott said that's not how the marsh tacky should be protected.

"The whole thing has been done wrong, because Mike Cohen and his family has had those horses for decades. And they've cut them completely out of the whole picture ... ," Scott said.

"Mike Cohen and his family and a lot of the other blacks, those are the people that should be in this thing. It's their heritage; it's not ours. They just pushed them out of the way is what they've done."

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content: Native islander, marsh tacky group disagree on who can compete in annual run, March 19, 2012

Marsh tacky races take Gullah festival to finish line, March 18, 2012 Island marsh tacky race organizers struggle to find suitable date, Oct. 27, 2011

Marsh tackies thrill crowd in Hilton Head beach race, Feb. 28, 2010

Tradition of marsh tacky racing will resume on Hilton Head, Jan. 24, 2009

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