A native islander steeped in the tradition of racing marsh tacky horses on the beach says he has been unfairly excluded from the Gullah Celebration's annual Marsh Tacky Run.
In fact, he and his son were threatened with arrest Sunday when they tried to enter horses into the race on the sands of Coligny Beach.
The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, however, says Michael Cohen's horses weren't eligible because he hasn't proven they are purebred.
"Why can't we run in our own Gullah celebration?" Cohen said Monday after calling a news conference on Mitchelville Beach, site of the annual races until they were moved in 2010. "Last year they wouldn't let us run. This year, they called the police on us. They say our horses aren't registered, but we keep sending them samples."
Cohen says he owns six purebred marsh tackies and has submitted hair samples for genetic testing to the marsh tacky group and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to prove it. He said he doesn't hear back from either about proving that his horses have Spanish blood, descended from the horses brought to the islands in the 1500s.
Attempts to reach Jeannette Beranger of the conservancy were unsuccessful Monday. Carolina Marsh Tacky Association president D.P. Lowther, who owns 100 marsh tackies of the estimated 300 remaining in the country, said the group has not received samples from the Cohens to determine if their horses are purebred.
In the past, Cohen has owned a purebred marsh tacky registered in the stud book, but that horse has since died, Lowther said. No other horses of Cohen's are listed, Lowther said.
Marsh tackies were integral to Gullah culture and used for work, transportation and entertainment. Cohen grew up watching his father race for local bragging rights on Mitchelville Beach.
When he and his son showed up at Coligny Beach for the fourth-annual race Sunday with a stud and a mare, he said, organizers called the police.
"The locals on the island should automatically be in the race," Cohen said.
Coastal Discovery Museum CEO and president Michael Marks said the police were called on Cohen to enforce rules that the marsh tacky group, the museum and the Gullah Celebration Committee agreed upon four years ago during the first run.
Those rules state that only purebred marsh tackies can run and that owners must be a part of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association. Riders also have to complete entry forms. Marks said the Cohens did not register by the Feb. 15 deadline or afterward.
"We had to make sure there were no horses on the beach that we didn't know about, because of the rules and for safety reasons," Marks said.
"We have to safeguard the rules and regulations we have," Lowther said. "If we just let everybody out there to run horses, then we're degrading what we set out to do."
Cohen said he was allowed to race in just one of the four annual races, in 2010, after arguing with organizers.
His son said more people than he can remember called his family because they expected to see him riding stud Sunny and mare Lady in the competition.Gullah Celebration chairman Charles Young III said that other native islanders haven't been allowed to ride because their marsh tackies are not registered with the association. He thinks that is unfair.
"We need to do some more following up and investigating of that," he said.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.