Thousands came out to Hilton Head Island's Coligny Beach Park on Sunday afternoon to watch 21 marsh tackies race under a clear blue sky. The crowd gathered on all sides of the roped-off track to root for favorites, their cheers mixing with the crashing waves and pounding hooves.
In heats of two or sometimes three, the horses barreled down the beach, sprinting 225 yards to the finish line. Preliminary rounds narrowed the field to the fastest horse in each category. Three then vied for the final crown: Sabata, an 8-year-old stallion; Simpson, a 3-year-old gelding; and Molly, a 22-year-old mare who is even older than her jockey.
At the drop of the starting flag, Molly flew down the sand, besting her competitors by a wide margin.
Brittany Bowen, 20, who rode the chestnut brown mare to victory, said such vitality is simply in the character of marsh tackies.
"They live a long life, and they're very all-around-great horses. They always have lots of energy," Bowen said, holding Molly's reins after the race. "She's 22, she still acts like she's 3."
Only one mishap marred the event, when rider Blaire Grant was injured after falling off her stallion at the end of the first heat. Her father, David Grant, said she was taken to the emergency room for X-rays.
"I think her foot came out of the stirrup at the end of the race, turning around," said David Grant, who owns several of the horses and rode the champion gelding Simpson.
The annual race, now in its third year, is coordinated by the Coastal Discovery Museum and serves as a finale to the Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration.
"We've had a great event, today," said Michael Marks, the museum's president and CEO. "We've had, I think, more people than we had in the past."
He estimated the crowd at 4,000 to 6,000 people.
Racing the squat little horses on the beach is a Gullah tradition that, like the breed, nearly vanished after Hilton Head's development.
The tackies are descended from horses brought over by the Spanish in the 1500s. They have large heads, narrow chests, short legs and long manes and can work for hours in the heat and humidity. They also are sure-footed in marshes and swamps, which made them ideal for the Lowcountry.
After each year's harvests, Gullah residents would gather on the north shores of Hilton Head to race marsh tackies across the sand.
But as Hilton Head modernized and fewer native islanders farmed, the tackies almost disappeared. Today, there are fewer than 250 of the purebred horses left.
Marks said the race helps residents and visitors learn about the breed and its unique history.
"It promotes the tacky horse, which is now the state heritage horse," Marks said. "Not only do people come out here and have a good time, but they also have a chance to learn a little bit."