Stepping Back Into History

By Linda Brown, Francis Marion Trail Commission and Science South

A passionate interest in the American Revolution met a desire to ensure that today's children appreciate the state's past in a recent presentation co-sponsored by the Francis Marion Trail Commission and Science South at the latter's Florence pavilion located at Freedome Florence.

David Grant is passionate about his Marsh Tacky horses and the role they likely played in aiding Gen. Francis Marion's Brigade in confounding the British of the Carolina Pee Dee and Lowcountry.

Grant, a Dillon County native who has lived in Florence for over 30 years, displayed two of the Marsh Tackies he breeds primarily for hunting. His horses, he said, are the direct descendants of horses originally brought to this country by Spanish settlers in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The Spaniards abandoned the horses to fend for themselves when their settlements along the Carolina Coast failed; others of the tough little horses swam ashore after Spanish galleons shipwrecked just off the coast.

Hilton Head Island and other South Carolina barrier islands provided a safe haven for the horses for many years. However, once development started encroaching on their habitat, the breed came close to dying out. Breeders like D.P. Lowther from whom Grant bought his first Marsh Tackies and after whom one of his studs is named, and the Ravenel family near Charleston recognized the significance of the horses and have kept the breed pure.

The horses, smaller than the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred, were also used in this area for many years for hunting just as Grant and his friends use them today. New York financier Bernard Baruch likely used Tackies to hunt at his Williamsburg County plantation Little Hobcaw, with such luminaries as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Gen. George Marshall and others joining him on many of these hunts. Gran has viewed a photo of Baruch and Little Hobcaw caretaker Dave McGill mounted for a hunting expedition and says the horses' configuration closely resembles that of the Marsh Tacky.

Lee Brockington, senior interpreter at Hobcaw Barony, one of Baruch's plantations in Georgetown County, states "Bernard Baruch bought eleven plantations on the Waccamaw Neck in 1905-07 as a winter hunting retreat and quickly adopted hunting methods common to the Carolina coast." Former employees, white and black, have said that Mr. Baruch would use Marsh Tackies as his hunting horses. Staff was sent to Hilton Head Island where Tackies were purchased from local blacks who herded and sold Tackies on a regular basis.

Brockington continued, "Dr. Havilah Babcock, an avid hunter and English professor at USC wrote in 'My Health is Better in November' that he hunted quail with Mr. Baruch at Little Hobcaw, and that by then he was using Marsh Tackies exclusively for hunting. Babcock's books were out of print for years until now and although not indexed, provide valuable insight into the outdoor life of our Carolina hunters during the first half of the 20th century. "Photographs in our digital archive," Brockington said, "are being searched to locate images of horses believed to be Marsh Tackies. Some appear to me and to members of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association to indeed be Tackies." In March of 2010, the association visited Hobcaw Barony and members rode the same dirt roads that Baruch and his guests rode as part of the trail rides offered to the horse-owning public.

David Grant says the horses were also used as pack animals to bring game out of the woods. "Once the four-wheeler came upon the scene however, the horses almost faded away," he said. In Grant's opinion, the horses' small size, agility and tough hides make them excellent for hunting in briar infested swamps. He hunts both, wild boar and deer from horseback, and says that his animals are good-natured and don't flinch even when their riders take a shot. He proved his point when re-enactors fired a volley during the presentation, and neither of the horses Grant had brought did more than flick an ear. "These are rough, tough little horses; I'm a rough, tough guy myself," said Grant, who is known in hunting circles as the "Pee Dee Cowboy." He said that as he hunted more from horseback and learned that many of Marion's Brigade would likely have ridden Tackies during the Revolutionary War, he began to marvel at the endurance and tenacity these early American soldiers needed to fight in the swamps of South Carolina. "They were tough men on tough horses," he said. 

As Francis Marion Trail Commission Director Bob Barrett related the story of British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and his men chasing Marion and his men for seven hours over 26 miles in what is now Charleston County, Grant and Wylie Bell rode their horses at a pace they have determined would have been needed to stay ahead of the British and Tory troops. The story, of course, ends with Marion and his men vanishing into Ox Swamp and Tarleton reportedly saying, "Come on boys, let's go back. As for this damned old fox the devil himself could not catch him," giving Marion the nickname, "Swamp Fox" which has come down through history.

For access to the Baruch Foundation's photo archive, please visit and for more information regarding Hobcaw Barony's tours and programs, go to

To find out more about Science South and its programs, please visit

Why a Marsh Tacky?

By David Grant

The chance to get involved in a noble cause and for the effort to be recorded in history rarely occurs for most people. That Marsh Tackies have endured for over 400 years with very little outside breeding influence is quite amazing.

I am passionate about the Marsh Tacky for many reasons. First is the fascinating documented history that surrounds these horses. Ask D.P. Lowther, Ed Ravenel or Lee McKenzie about these horses and they will take you back 50 years or more and tell you some intriguing stories of people and horses. We simply cannot allow these great memories to pass from our generation undocumented. I offer a challenge to each person who reads this to find out why there is a movement going on to preserve not only the horse but also the priceless heritage surrounding them, and get involved.

I cannot speak as an authority on the history of these amazing horses, but I can speak first hand about their many attributes.

You can have the prettiest horse in the world but if it doesn't have enough sense or hardiness to survive, what do you have? The Tacky has an innate sense of self-preservation. I have ridden my grulla stud, DP, for a number of years now and he has pulled me out of some pretty tough situations. On one hunt we fell into a hole large enough for him to roll into it. He just rolled out from under me and literally crawled out. The most amazing thing is that he came back to get me. He has developed an ear for the dogs baying and will pick his own way to them.

Marsh Tackies are very easy keepers. I have quite a few and have had very few problems. They stay fat on grass and hay, their feet require very little trimming, their resistance to insects and heat is astounding, and the list goes on and on.

We are at a crossroads in the effort to save these horses. We need newcomers to get involved in our effort. Even if a person cannot own a horse, there are numerous ways to help preserve the breed. All of us have been given different strengths by the good Lord and if we blend those strengths into grassroots conservation effort, we can look back on our life and tell people, "I helped save the Marsh Tacky from extinction."

At times, I get discouraged in our effort. Then I stop and think about what our forefathers did on the backs of some of these same types of horses to ensure our freedom. We cannot let the breed disappear. Won't you join us in the effort?

The best thing for the inside of a person is the backside of a horse. More so if that horse is a living legend, a Marsh Tacky!

Carolina Marsh Tacky Outdoors

Carolina Marsh Tacky Outdoors Marsh Tacky Horses

The Carolina Marsh Tacky - Yesterday and Today

By Jeannette Beranger, Research and Technical Programs Manager, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

The name "Tacky" is derived from the English word for "cheap" or "common." For most of their history, Marsh Tackies were the most common horse in the swampy and marshy Lowcountry region of coastal South Carolina and Georgia and were used for riding, pulling, and anything else horsepower was needed for. They were found from as far north as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and as far south as St. Simmons Island, GA, until the advent of the automobile. As the car replaced the horse, the Marsh Tacky began to disappear. In fact, the breed was thought to have become extinct during the 1980s and 1990s. This ancient breed has managed to hold on in the hands of people committed to their long held family traditions of keeping Marsh Tackies.

Origin of the Tackies

Although the exact origin of the Marsh Tacky horse is unclear, it can be attributed to Spanish stock that arrived on the coast and islands of South Carolina as "drop offs" by Spanish explorers and stock brought over by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. A number of Spanish horse populations along the Southeast coast ultimately thrived and became feral herds. (Some of the more famous herds comprise the Banker ponies of North Carolina.) A further influx of Spanish horses made their way to South Carolina in the Charleston area through the deerskin trade. Spanish horses were acquired at the St. Augustine Spanish settlement and were used as pack animals for the Native American trade routes of the Chickasaw, Creek and Southeastern Choctaw tribes. The horses were sold once they arrived in Charleston and bolstered the population of Spanish horses that would become the Marsh Tacky.

Tackies were largely managed on islands in the lowland or "lowcountry" region and on coastal islands including Hilton Head. These herds were occasionally rounded up by local inhabitants whenever there was a need for horses. Until recently, Marsh Tackies were still managed in this fashion. Today, there are a little over 300 pure Marsh Tackies left.

Identifying the Breed

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) began an investigation into the Marsh Tacky horse breed through a lead given to ALBC's technical advisor, Dr. Phillip Sponenberg of Virginia Tech's Veterinary College by members of the Florida Cracker Horse Association. Members of that association had heard of horses in South Carolina that were very similar to their Florida Cracker horse (a strain of Colonial Spanish horse). Florida breeders decided to see for themselves. Initial inspection showed that the breed of horse in South Carolina, the Marsh Tacky, did in fact resemble Florida Cracker horses, but had some distinct differences. There were very few left, according to the remaining Marsh Tacky breeders. Upon returning to Florida, the Cracker horse breeders contacted Dr. Sponenberg, a leading authority on horse genetics, and in particular, an expert on Colonial Spanish horses. They thought he might be able to shed more light on the Marsh Tacky horse and help create a strategy to conserve the few remaining Tackies.

During the spring of 2006, Dr. Sponenberg, along with two other ALBC staff members, Marjorie Bender and Jeannette Beranger, made a trip to South Carolina to begin an ALBC field investigation and determine if the Marsh Tacky could be a surviving descendant of the Spanish horses that arrived in the Americas as early as the 1500s.

According to Dr. Sponenberg, "Colonial Spanish horses are of great historic importance to the New World. They descend from horses introduced from Spain during the age of the conquest of the New World. They are a direct remnant of the horses of the Golden Age of Spain, and that type is mostly or wholly extinct now in Spain. Our Colonial Spanish horses are therefore a treasure chest of genetic wealth from a time long gone." If the Marsh Tacky were indeed a strain of these genetically significant horses, then their conservation would become a priority for the ALBC.

Their relative isolation in coastal and lowland regions of South Carolina contributed to the enduring Spanish qualities within the breed. Initial field inspection of a number of Marsh Tackies revealed that many were still clearly very consistent with the old Colonial Spanish "type." Over the centuries, the horses adapted to the environment and through relative isolation became a unique strain within the Colonial Spanish horse population. DNA samples were taken from nearly 100 Tackies to increase the understanding of how these horses are related to other Colonial Spanish strains, including the Florida Cracker, Spanish Mustang, Spanish Barb, Sulphur, Choctaw and Wilbur-Cruce horses, among others.

Breed Characteristics

The Marsh Tacky is a sturdy, well-balanced and easy keeping horse with a sharp mind. Owners will attest to the ease of training that is characteristic of these horses. The Tacky's thoughtful approach to novel items and experiences reduces the likelihood of panic and flight, as found in high-strung breeds. Their gentle nature and easily managed size (13.5 to 15 hands) historically made the Marsh Tacky the preferred mount for ladies and children, but their strength, prowess and fearlessness in the field made them popular as working animals utilized for hunting and herding cattle. Newly broken horses often are in the field and used as hunting mounts within weeks of having the first saddle on their back. For modern times, the breed continues in its traditional roles, but also shows great promise as an endurance or competitive trail horse.

Marsh Tackies come in a variety of colors that are consistent with other Colonial Spanish horses. Historically, there may have been some color patterns, such as paints, within the population but these patterns were not selected for, and in recent times, are not seen within the breed. The more common colors remaining in Marsh Tackies today are dun, bay, blue roan, dun roan, red roan, sorrel, chestnut, black and grulla.

A Part of South Carolina's History

Marsh Tackies have played a significant role in South Carolina's history. During the American Revolution, Marsh Tackies were used by many of the troops of the famous General Francis Marion, the "Swampfox." Marion's troops of "irregulars" used their own mounts, the common horses of the area, during their campaigns against the British. The most common horse in the region at that time would have been the Marsh Tacky.

Known as the "Father of American Guerrilla Warfare," Marion not only was a great tactician, but also his troops inadvertently had the additional technical advantage of being mounted on horses superbly adapted to the rough and swampy terrain of the region. British troops mounted on larger European breeds may have been at a disadvantage in trying to maneuver in the dense and wild swamps of the lowlands.

After the Civil War, the Marsh Tacky became an integral part of agricultural life and in particular within the Gullah community and culture, as they were the common horse of every farmer on the islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The horses were used for everything from delivering the mail, to bringing folks to church, to plowing the fields. Every Gullah family seemingly had a Marsh Tacky in their field or garden.

During World War II, some Tackies were used as Beach Patrol horses on the coast of South Carolina, protecting the shores from the threat of Nazi U-boats or potential landings of enemy troops or spies.

A popular local event held on Hilton Head up until the 1960s were horse racing derbies. Marsh Tackies would run on a stretch of beach, round an obstacle and return to the finish. Winners were presented roses, as any distinguished Thoroughbred would have received in a grand race. This tradition was revisited for the first time since the 1960s during the annual Gullah Cultural Festival on Hilton Head in February of 2009 to the delight of over 3,000 spectators on historic Mitchellville Beach. The huge success of the event caused the races to become an annual tradition on the island.

Preserving the Breed

Today, a majority of the Marsh Tacky horses lie in the hands of hunters and long-time fanciers who have had these horses in their families for generations. The remaining horses retain their ability to thrive in the challenging environments of coastal South Carolina and have stamina in the field that is second to none. Owners often comment on the built-in "woods sense" of the breed and how the horses have a natural way of traversing water obstacles and swamps without panicking or getting stuck in the mud. "If a horse panics in the water, then it is not a Marsh Tacky," boasts one breeder. Another claims that these horses "know how to wear their feet," attesting to their sure-footedness, smooth ride and almost thoughtful approach to traveling in the field.

Since the ALBC first found out about the breed and succeeded in finding and working with the breeders, the future has begun to look brighter for these rare horses. All the efforts of documenting and networking are now serving to support the breed's recovery. In October of 2006, Marsh Tacky breeder David Grant, with the assistance of the Equus Survival Trust, held an open house at his farm to introduce the public to Marsh Tackies.

Following the event, ALBC conducted an informational workshop on Hilton Head in February of 2007 to discuss the formation of a breed association. ALBC met once again with Marsh Tacky owners and supporters in June 2007 at the Mullet Hall Equestrian Center on Johns Island, S.C., to discuss the formalization of a Marsh Tacky Horse Association. During the meeting, the owners formed a Board of Governance that will pave the way for the creation of a Carolina Marsh Tacky Association (CMTA) whose mission is to support and promote the Marsh Tacky horse.

Following the formation of the breed association, ALBC received a grant from the Thorne Foundation to continue fieldwork and create a studbook for the Marsh Tacky. The studbook was completed in 2009 and is managed using the Breeders Assistant studbook program. This software was chosen for its versatility and for its proven record in management of other rare breeds. It also gives the ALBC the ability to make the studbook available to owners through the ALBC website.

As part of the recovery project, DNA samples were collected for analysis by Dr. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University. Results of this information are being used to enhance the strategy for population management and help maintain the remaining genetic diversity within the population.

The Marsh Tacky remains a living piece of history in its native region and in 2010 was honored by being named the official State Heritage Horse of South Carolina. The Marsh Tacky has endured over 400 years and has the potential to survive far beyond that, as long as enthusiasts and conservationists work together to preserve what remains of this historic treasure.

For more information about Marsh Tacky horses, please contact the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, or the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association,

Are Marsh Tacky Horses Gaited?

By Dr. Molly Nicodemus, PhD, Gaited Locomotive Research Program,

Mississippi State University and Jeannette Beranger, ALBC

Due to the breed's Colonial Spanish heritage the Marsh Tacky was thought by some to be gaited, but there had never been any research conducted concerning the gaits. One long time breeder once described it as a "rocking chair gait." Once thing for certain is that some of the horses were found to be particularly comfortable under saddle. This thinking was the start of a project to try to understand why the Marsh Tacky was often different from the feel of other horses when ridden. A study was undertaken by Dr. Molly Nicodemus of Mississippi State University (MSU) and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) to explore and define the gait of the Marsh Tacky using video of the horses analyzed with temporal variable measurements on the horses. Ten horses from various bloodlines were selected and filmed by the ALBC staff while the horses performed their intermediate gait. Using frame-by-frame analysis, ten strides that were consistent with clearly visible hoof contact and lift-off were evaluated for the study by MSU. An interesting development occurred as every one of the horses Dr. Nicodemus viewed had periods of "gaiting." This meant that they demonstrated a symmetrical, 4-beat stepping (no suspension) gait with a lateral footfall sequence (meaning the footfall was left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore) in which all of these variables are similar to the walk and other gaited horse gaits (running walk, rack, fox trot, etc.)

What Dr. Nicodemus found is that the Marsh Tackies perform a "broken trot" (similar to the fox trot of the Missouri Fox Trotter). Instead of a diagonal pairs, the two diagonal limbs disassociate creating instead of a 2-beat gait a 4-beat gait with diagonal couplets. In place of the suspension, the horse has created a quadrupedal support phase where all four limbs are on the ground. The durations, timing, and limb support are more similar to the marcha batida of the Mangalarga Marchador, the National horse of Brazil. The fox trot does not demonstrate quadrupedal support, instead shows more tripedal support, but the marcha batida does show quadrupedal support along with the diagonal couplets. Both the Mangalarga Marchador and Marsh Tacky breeds share similar Spanish ancestries which may explain the similarities in their gaits.

At faster speeds than what was measured in the research study, the Tackies can produce a true trot, which is similar to other gaited breeds which can produce either a pace or trot at faster speeds (depending on the breed). Some horses in the study could not hold the gait as well at the speeds that were observed, which can make the gaits feel and look rough as they switch in and out of the trot and broken trot. Conformationally, some horses may be suited better for this gait than others, but the study has not yet gotten that far into the research to understand this point. The lack of suspension, periods of quadrupedal support, and the longer periods of stance (where the hoof is more on the ground) assist the horse in traveling through such terrain as marshy land.

The next step for MSU in research will be to look at joint angles, head displacements, back and croup movements to determine further what they are doing with the body to assist in producing the gait. With the current findings, some Marsh Tackies could be considered gaited. The findings were published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2009. The gait variables found in the study will assist in identifying characteristics that are unique to the Marsh Tacky in comparison to other gaited horse breeds.

Dr. Nicodemus writes, "While the gait looks like the marcha batida, it is not exactly the same so it truly needs its own name" and has invited the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association to coin a name for their breed's gait.

Interestingly because the gait of the Marsh Tacky is definitely unlike anything Dr. Nicodemus has ever seen in other gaited horses, it has encouraged further research on other Spanish Colonial breeds. Work is currently under way to collect video footage of other Colonial Spanish horse breeds listed on the ALBC Conservation Priority List.