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ALBC Works with Owners and Others to Conserve the Critically Endangered Marsh Tacky Horse

By Jeannette Beranger

Critically endangered Marsh Tacky horses get a second chance for survival. 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. The breed’s numbers dwindled as the automobile slowly replaced the horse in the last century. Until recently, the breed was thought to have become extinct during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but has managed to hold on in the hands of a small group of people committed to their long held family traditions of keeping Marsh Tackies.

The origin of the Marsh Tacky horse can be attributed to Spanish stock that arrived on the coast and islands of South Carolina as “drop offs” by Spanish explorers and to stock brought over by Spanish settlers in the 1500’s. These horses were largely managed in herds on islands and 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 the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) estimates there are fewer than 150 pure Marsh Tackies left in a handful of small herds in South Carolina.

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. 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 1500’s. During the initial field inspection of a number of Marsh Tackies, it was revealed that many of the horses were still very clearly consistent with the old Colonial Spanish “type”.

According to Dr. Sponenberg, “Colonial Spanish Horses are of great historic importance in 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 was indeed a strain of these genetically significant horses, then their conservation would become a priority for ALBC.

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 “Swamp Fox”, Francis Marion. 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. In later years after the Civil War, the Marsh Tacky became an integral part of the Gullah island community and culture, as they were the common using horse of every farmer on the islands. Every Gullah family seemingly had a Marsh Tacky in their field or garden.

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. 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. Often newly broke horses 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.

It’s been nearly fifteen years since Dr. Sponenberg first heard about the Marsh Tacky and two years since ALBC succeeded in finding and working with the remaining breeders. All the efforts of documenting and networking are now serving to support the breed’s recovery. In line with the conservation effort for the breed, Marsh Tacky owner/breeder David Grant, with the assistance of Equus Survival Trust, held an open house in the fall of 2006 at his farm to help introduce the public to Marsh Tackies. Following the event, ALBC conducted an informational Marsh Tacky 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, South Carolina. During the meeting the horse owners formed a Board of Governance that will pave the way for the creation of a Carolina Marsh Tacky Association whose mission will be to support and promote the Marsh Tacky horse.

ALBC recently received a grant from the Thorne Foundation to continue fieldwork and create a studbook for the Marsh Tacky. As part of the recovery project, DNA samples are also being collected through the cooperation of horse owners, ALBC, and Equus Survival Trust for analysis by Dr. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University. Results of this information will be used to enhance the strategy for population management and help maintain the remaining genetic diversity within the population. Additional scientific study on the Marsh Tacky will be undertaken through the Gaited Locomotive Research Program at Mississippi State University. This program will be studying the gait of the breed to get a better understanding as to why these horses can work or be ridden all day without the horse or its rider tiring.
The Marsh Tacky remains a living piece of history in its native region, has endured for over 400 years, and has the potential to survive far beyond that – as long as enthusiasts and conservationist work together to preserve what remains of this historic treasure.

For more information about Marsh Tacky Horses contact American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC, 27312, 919-542-5704, jberanger@albc-usa.org, www.albc-usa.org.

THE AMERICAN LIVESTOCK BREEDS CONSERVANCY, founded in 1977, is a non-profit membership organization working to protect over 150 breeds of cattle, goats, horses, asses, sheep, pigs, rabbits and poultry from extinction. It is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve heritage breeds and genetic diversity in livestock.