What’s a Marsh Tacky? A marshmallow that’s been melting in the sun? Or maybe a badly decorated wetland? No, this strange name is actually for a horse—South Carolina's official state heritage horse. And while the little Marsh Tacky might not be well-known, it is an important part of South Carolina’s history and still a beloved breed today.
Marsh Tackies developed on the Sea Islands of South Carolina over three centuries. They’re descended from Colonial Spanish horses brought to coast of South Carolina in the 16th century, when the Spanish attempted the first European settlement in the US at Santa Elena on present-day Parris Island.
Marsh Tackies were bred to thrive in the challenging climate and terrain of the Lowcountry—hot, humid and swampy. They are small, sturdy, calm, brave and gentle. Other horses struggled in the soft, difficult terrain of swamp, pluff mud, water and marsh. The Marsh Tacky, however, was known for being both sure-footed and for not panicking in difficult situations. Both traits were essential for work in the Lowcountry.
The little Marsh Tacky even played an important role in American history. The Marsh Tacky was the preferred horse of the soldiers under Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” whose victories in the Revolutionary War helped turn the tide for the patriots. The British cavalry’s big, heavy war horses were at a distinct disadvantage in the swamps of South Carolina, while the Marsh Tackies moved the patriots through almost impenetrable swampland.
But while the Marsh Tacky was an integral part of South Carolina history and culture, they are now very rare, with about 400 known Marsh Tackies alive today. Just a decade ago, there were perhaps 100 and the breed almost disappeared. Through the dedicated work of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association and Marsh Tacky owners, the breed is making a comeback.
There are several ways to see and meet Marsh Tackies today. Hilton Head Island’s Coastal Discovery Museum has two Marsh Tackies who are sometimes on exhibit to visitors. You might see them as you drive through their pasture on the way to the museum buildings. They are one of the most popular attractions at the museum. They aren't always there or on exhibit, however, so call ahead to check.
The Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage in Ridgeland occasionally hosts presentations on the history of the Marsh Tacky, complete with some gentle examples to meet and greet.
And while Marsh Tackies were never quite as famous as thoroughbreds for their racing skills, that doesn’t mean that they don’t like to run. The Kiawah Cup Beach Race is a fantastic way to combine two of South Carolina’s treasures: Marsh Tackies and the beach. Hosted by Kiawah Cares each March, the Kiawah Cup is a race just for Marsh Tackies. Learn more here.
And where does that funny name come from, anyway? Well, "tacky" is the old-fashioned word for common. Marsh Tackies were the common horse in the Lowcountry, the one every family had. But we think they're a true South Carolina treasure.