“I read about them and decided I had to have one. A friend of mine got one and introduced me to some people. I wasn’t even in the market, but I couldn’t not get one!” says Mary Elizabeth Shoptaw as she strokes the velvety-downy coat of her Marsh Tacky, Tilly.
The Marsh Tacky was brought to the Carolina coast in the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers, settlers, and traders. Sure-footed and hardy, Marsh Tackies were used to carry goods on the Native American trade routes. In the American Revolution, Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and his forces rode the sturdy little horses against the British. The Tackies proved calm and tenacious in the swamplands of the Lowcountry compared to the larger European steeds of the British forces. Throughout history the breed has been managed in feral herds and used in ranching and farming. Beginning in the 1960s Marsh Tackies were raced on Hilton Head Island, and today’s race on Kiawah Island is the first since the 1980s. The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association formed in 2007 with one hundred registered horses. Today there are four hundred.
Janson Cox is a race headliner. His Marsh Tacky, Molly, won the 2011 race on Hilton Head Island—she was twenty-two at the time and beat nineteen younger horses! Today she is the official Marsh Tacky ambassador. She’s retired now but Cox tours her around the state, giving educational presentations on horse-mounted soldiers in the American Revolution and Civil War. “Molly is also a member of the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]. She’s descended from Francis Marion’s horses,” he says proudly. “So here’s a legend—a state legend.” He will ride Molly down the barricade to kick off the start of the race later in the afternoon.
This inaugural event is a long time in the making. After launching Kiawah Cares in 2010, the Kiawah Island Community Association (KICA) has been an active community player in the surrounding Sea Islands, tackling issues like substandard housing, homelessness, hunger, and employment training. “We knew that property owners were vested in the greater community, very philanthropic and giving of their knowledge and time for the betterment of others,” says Tammy McAdory, KICA’s communications and outreach director. “We focus on education, literacy, and other enrichment opportunities for Sea Island youth.”
So when the Kiawah Cares Foundation achieved 501(c)(3) status in 2014, the group needed ways to raise funds. “Kiawah property owners are a giving group, and there are already many fundraisers, including a gamut of golf matches and dinner galas,” says McAdory. “We wanted something unique, different.”
The crowd makes their way down the boardwalk and onto the white sand. A beach bar serves up cold beer and white wine. In anticipation of the hat competition later in the day, attendees wear colorful, wide-brimmed hats decorated with everything from apples to alligators. The mood is festive and expectant; not many have witnessed a horse race on the beach before.
“The most exciting moment for me is watching fifteen stunning and rare Marsh Tackies walk out of the mist and onto the beach towards the field, led by cowboys and people who love them beyond description,” says McAdory. “Sorry, I’m a horse girl. We’re cheesy like that. But it is like they are walking out of time into our environment. It gives me chills!”
It is a sight to see, indeed. The horses prance and snort, their riders chatting nervously. Most of the horses here today aren’t trained for racing—it’s more for fun. “We don’t practice on tracks or anything,” says Paige Cooley, sitting atop Radar. Cooley was the grand champion of the 2013 beach race. “You kinda come out here and have one shot at it, and that’s it. That makes it more interesting—the unknown!”
The race is split into three mare heats and three gelding heats. The winners face off in the finals. And they’re off! The first pair come thundering down the beach. It’s dramatic enough to raise the hairs on your neck—all that power and speed. Southern Breeze is the first winner of the day, trotting back up the beach to the start line amidst wild cheers from the crowd. The races continue throughout the early afternoon. Some horses don’t cotton to racing and only reach a relaxed lope. One horse heads straight for the ocean, another bucks like crazy at the starting line. “You never know what’s going to happen,” says Cooley. “You may think your horse is going to run great, and then you get out there and they spook at something or do something silly.”
But that’s all part of the fun. Yogi Manning, a horseman from Pelion, South Carolina, rides Cosette, and halfway down the beach she takes a dogleg left towards the ocean. He reins her in, shouting “THAT WAY!” while pointing to the finish line. The crowd goes wild with laughter. Not to diminish the performance of some of the horses, though. The winners fly down the beach, hooves drumming and riders high in the saddle.
The Marsh Tacky usually stands at about fourteen hands high (under five feet tall). Historically they were preferred by women and children because of their size and nature. “I love these horses,” gushes Shoptaw. “They’re the most sensible, calmest horses I’ve ever seen. And they’re friendly, sweet, affectionate.” And there’s something winning about their history, the fact that these unique beasts belong on the Sea Islands, that they are rare and beloved by a select few in the horse world.
And that’s why these races are so special. Sure, it’s a lighthearted affair but these horses are a local wonder, a relic of the past. And according to Cox, it’s not easy to find beaches fit for racing. “But it’s their home,” he says. “That’s the beauty of it.”
The races culminate in a neck-and-neck battle between Donna Jones on Marsh Buck and Lindsey Loparo on Jefferson. The crowd is tight against the barricades, shouting and exhilarated. The two horses pass each other several times and cross the finish line in near unison. The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association (CMTA) calls it a draw!
“It was an adrenaline rush,” says Loparo. “I was more out of breath than he was. I was a little nervous—we went out there expecting nothing!”
The band tunes up by the pool, and attendees drift towards the Sandcastle for cocktails and dancing. The horses and riders make the walk along the beach, through the maritime thicket, and back to the trailers. There’s a palpable camaraderie in the air, and owners take turns with the hose, washing down their mounts in the sunshine.
Will Gregory, another finalist, brushes down Archibald, a bay gelding. “It was great! That’s the first time I’ve done one of these races,” says Gregory. “My horse is kinda vain, and he hasn’t done all this. It’s fast and fun.” — H.W.