David Lauderdale

Molly the marsh tacky: An unsinkable spirit, a championship stride

Oh, that we could all be more like Molly.

Molly isthe 22-year-old mare that out-dashed 19 younger horses thundering down the Hilton Head Island beach last week before a crowd of 6,000 to win the Marsh Tacky Cup.

"Molly never likes to be second," said her owner, Janson Cox.

Going by the book, Molly should be happy to be anywhere near second.

She's of a breed whose very name means "common." Just a few years ago, the short and stocky marsh tackies were all but extinct. They were left for dead on these shores 500 years ago by Spanish explorers. Now they're making a comeback, and for the past three years they've been the star of the Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration, in an old-fashioned race run by the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Molly was originally owned by a Gullah family in the small town of Givhans in Dorchester County. She was a plow horse. She'd pull a wagon, get unhitched to plow a garden or field, get hitched back to the wagon and pull her way to the next job.

Molly was sold to a man who used her for hog and deer hunting, then sold to someone who tried to do dressage with her. They cut her tail and bobbed her mane. Molly is a pretty horse, her reddish-brown color always looking groomed, a long black mane and tail, and a little white star on her forehead. But she wasn't meant to be a show horse.

She was sold at a livestock auction in Walterboro to a man who bought her for his wife. But the wife didn't like Molly's gait, and the man needed a new transmission in his pickup, so he sold Molly to Cox.

Since then, Molly has led many more lives.

THE CAVALRY

In his first 70 years, Cox has been the state historian, history professor, manager of Charles Town Landing and a member of The Citadel class of 1963. Today, he's director of the S.C. Cotton Museum in Bishopville.

Through it all, he's kept alive the story of U.S. horse-mounted soldiers from the Revolutionary War to the present. He has seven horses on his Dragoon Farm near the small town of Boykin. He does "living history" events dressed for every period of history, always riding in the spurs his uncle wore in World War I.

Molly loves the cavalry.

She's an active member of the Lee County Light Horse Color Guard. She goes to parades, school programs and re-enactments.

"It's amazing how fast Molly learned the bugle calls," said Cox. "She learns it the first time and does not forget."

Molly was ridden at Gettysburg.She was ridden 60 miles across southern Ohio in a reenactment of Morgan's Raid to mark the bicentennial of Ohio.

She carries her trooper -- Cox, or his son, Erik, of John's Island -- plus about 65 pounds of gear.

For Cox, the real fun is when they ride a week or two over vast tracts playing war games, hauling cannon, firing guns and even fighting knee-to-knee in sword fights with Molly leaning into the battle.

At the same time, Molly is a gentle ambassador for marsh tackies, known for patience and a willingness to try whatever they're asked to do.

Molly made appearances all over the state during the run-up to the state legislature naming the marsh tacky the official state heritage horse last year.

In Rock Hill, she was made an honorary member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She fit the basic requirements. She had the DNA papers to prove she was a marsh tacky like the ones that helped Francis Marion defeat the British in South Carolina. And she was 18 years old. Her DAR plaque hangs in her stall.

AMERICAN DREAM

Molly has a lot of traits we all should emulate. She never eats more than she needs. She's smart. She's thoughtful. She notices everything. She's the alpha animal in the pasture, but also can lean down for children to pet her and ride her in the Boykin Christmas Parade.

"She approaches every job with the same vigor and enthusiasm," Cox said. "Is this what you want me to do? Let's do it. She enters every project with that attitude."

Erik Cox said, "There's no quit in her. To Molly, there's no such thing as can't."

Nothing thrills her like race day on Hilton Head.

Molly wasn't able to race in the first Marsh Tacky Run three years ago. She was having her only foal that we know of -- a mare born in a stiff wind and named Mariah. Last year, Molly was the winning mare but lost by a nose in the championship race to William Green of St. Helena Island on his gelding, Blue Duck.

This year, the minute Molly got to the beach, she was ready. While all the horses paraded around the ropes to meet the public, Molly pranced. She was the queen bee. She was a ham.

Erik Cox said, "We may have her there as an ambassador, but she doesn't think that. Molly's there to win."

Brittany Bowen of Sumter rode Molly to four winning heats, 225 yards straight down the beach. They joke that Bowen, at 20, was younger than Molly, and that Molly had to carry two people because Bowen is eight weeks pregnant.

"Every time I get on her, she's jumping on her tiptoes," said Bowen, who is half Waccamaw Indian. "She's ready to go."

Jackie McFadden of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association said Molly has done a lot to help South Carolinians appreciate their new heritage horse.

"You can make something out of nothing -- isn't that the American dream," Cox asks. "Molly is that. We've just let her be herself."

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