Marsh tackies thrill crowd in Hilton Head beach race

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Marsh tackies thrill crowd in Hilton Head beach race

By CASSIE FOSS <li> cfoss@islandpacket.com <li> 843-706-8125
Published Sunday, February 28, 2010   |  537 Words  |  news

No fancy derby hats, thoroughbred champions or wreaths of roses adorned Hilton Head Island's Coligny Beach on Sunday.
Instead, an estimated 2,000 spectators heard the sound of sturdy hooves hitting the sand and triumphant "ye-haws" of the riders at the Gullah Festival's second annual Marsh Tacky Run.
Blue Duck, a 14-year-old gelding ridden by William Green of St. Helena Island, won the marsh tacky cup and earned bragging rights after competing against the top mare and stallion in the race's final heat. Riders and their tackies came from as far away as Columbia for the race, which wrapped up the monthlong Gullah Heritage Festival.
Racing the squat little horses on the beach had been a Gullah tradition for generations that, like the breed, nearly vanished after the island's development. As Hilton Head modernized, fewer native islanders farmed, so they no longer needed marsh tackies.
Today, there are fewer than 250 of the purebred horses left, said Jennifer Kendall, a spokeswoman for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
After each year's harvests, Gullah residents would gather on the north shores of Hilton Head to race marsh tackies across the sand.
On Sunday, horses ran about 150 yards down the beach to a finish line, and heats continued until only three finalists remained. Eighteen horses ran, including three owned by Michael Cohen, a Hilton Head native who grew up watching his father race his marsh tacky horse, Jerry, in the mid-1960s on Mitchelville beach.
"We farmed corn, okra and watermelon, and the horses worked hard," Cohen said. "But every Sunday there was a race. The people don't bother them, and the beach doesn't bother them. They're not bothered by much."
Cohen owns four of the last surviving marsh tackies on the island, descendants of horses brought over by the Spanish in the 1500s. They have large heads, narrow chests, short legs and long manes and can work long hours in the heat and humidity. They are sure-footed in marshes and swamps, which made them ideal for the Lowcountry.
"The important thing is that all these people came down here, and they're leaving knowing the name 'marsh tacky,'" said Michael Marks, CEO of the island's Coastal Discovery Museum. Volunteers from the museum coordinated the event -- from setting up and monitoring the track, to picking up manure, Marks said.
The race plays an important role in the Gullah celebration, said James Mitchell Jr., president and CEO of the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, which also helped plan the events.
"It was spectacular," Mitchell said. "It was beyond anything we expected."
Lauren Simons, the youngest rider at age 14, came from St. George to compete on her dad's mare, Salt Creek Annie. The teen has been riding since she was 5 years old, but just recently started on tackies, she said.
"She's a lot smoother to ride in the mud," said Simons. "It's a lot better because their feet are wider."
Simons had a stalled start and lost in the final heat.
"It was scary," said Simons, who wants to work as an equine veterinarian when she grows up. "But I can't wait till next year."