It's good news for our community that the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association will hold its annual horse race March 29 on Daufuskie Island despite losing its sponsor.
Since the first race in 2009, residents and tourists alike have enjoyed the spirited event where riders hop on mares, geldings and stallions that gallop 400 yards along the beach at top speed. There's no big cash award, just trophies for the winners in each class and the Marsh Tacky Cup for the overall fastest horse.
Beyond offering free and casual fun, the event is a fitting way to honor marsh tackies, the state's official horse and a living piece of our region's history. The animals, slightly smaller than standard-size horses, were brought to the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands in the 1500s by Spanish explorers and quickly adapted to the Lowcountry's hot, wet climate.
Even-tempered and sure-footed, the breed has played an important role in the state's history. During the Revolutionary War, they served as dragoon horses for troops of General Francis Marion, better known as The Swamp Fox. Some historians speculate the small but tough horses may have given Marion an advantage over his British cavalry foes, mounted on large, European breeds that were ill-equipped for the spongy muck of the swamps.
After the Civil War, native islanders used marsh tackies for farm work, hunting, transportation and races to celebrate the end of the harvest. And thousands of feral tackies roamed the sea islands.
In World War II, beach patrols rode tackies and kept watch over the S.C. coastline, safeguarding against Nazi U-boats.
Because of crossbreeding with larger horses, tackies were thought extinct by the 1950s. But that changed in 2005 when the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy came to South Carolina's Lowcountry and found tackies whose heritage was confirmed by DNA analysis. Today, only a few hundred marsh tackies are registered in the Carolina Marsh Tacky Registry, making it a critically endangered breed.
Going forward, we hope new sponsors will step up and ensure that this breed that has been so important to South Carolina continues to have its day in the sun. Ideally, the annual race would move back to Hilton Head Island, where thousands instead of hundreds could enjoy it.
The event was moved to Daufuskie last year after two sponsors pulled out. This year's race-goers must pony up $50 for a roundtrip ferry ride to Daufuskie Island, limiting attendance. (Those not able to attend the race should check out the March Tacky Horse Exhibition Feb. 23 on Beach City Road, part of the monthlong Gullah Celebration.)
While a return to Hilton Head Island would mean big crowds, traffic and a lack of parking, it's something the town and sponsors could effectively overcome. Careful attention would also need to be paid to safety, ensuring a separation between race-goers and the 1,200- to 1,400-pound animals, galloping at full speed.
It would take some planning, but the races could return to Hilton Head. A chance for thousands to see marsh tackies in action would be worth it.