Marsh tacky beach race shouldn't just ride away

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Marsh tacky beach race shouldn't just ride away

Published Saturday, December 1, 2012   |  678 Words  |  

Pity the poor marsh tacky.

It was spurned for hundreds of years as a lowly breed of horse after it was left in the marshes of the Carolinas by Spanish explorers. It was considered too small, too plain, even too ugly to be of any value.

Finally, the marsh tacky got its day in the sun with wildly popular races on the beaches of Hilton Head Island.

The race was part of the Gullah Celebration held each February to remember the folkways of a group of people who, like the marsh tacky, also were looked down upon by mainstream society. The formerly enslaved people left to their own devices on lonely sea islands following the Civil War, depended on the marsh tacky as a mode of transportation, a way to till the soil and a skilled hunting partner.

Now it is time to pity the poor fans of the marsh tacky.

The race has been called off, ironically due to a dispute over proper registration. The race that celebrated a horse and a people who survived without society's approval has now gone silent in a dispute over proper papers.

Reasonable people could have avoided this. The losers are the marsh tackies, just emerging as goodwill ambassadors of the Lowcountry and a source of pride statewide. The losers are the thousands of fans who liked to see them run. The losers are the breeders and horse owners who have worked hard to revive the breed that almost disappeared amid modern development in the era of automobiles and tractors.

The only "winners" are the obstinate humans who could not reach compromise. They got their way. Nobody else did.

The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, which organized the race for two local nonprofit groups, blames an individual for causing it to cancel the race. They say an island man repeatedly showed up without registering for the race, bringing unregistered horses he said were marsh tackies. One year, he was allowed to race. Last year, police were called to remove him.

The association says race rules -- proof of registration and vaccination for the horses and pre-registration by riders -- have always been in place and could not be ignored. It said it offered to help the man get his horses registered by paying for DNA testing. It offered to have two races, with one for mixed-breed horses to precede the race for purebred marsh tackies. None of that, they say, was deemed acceptable nor was it taken advantage of.

The Coastal Discovery Museum, which sponsored the event, said the race had outgrown its management abilities, and it was worried about liability. Attendance from the beginning exceeded expectations. Last year, it rendered the entire Coligny Circle and Forest Beach areas impassible to traffic and showed how little public parking is available in the Coligny Beach Park area.

The head of the Gullah Celebration, put on by the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, declined to comment on the race cancellation. Public silence is not good enough for an event that accepts tax dollars.

In recent years, the marsh tacky has been named the state's official heritage horse. And the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has created a Marsh Tacky Studbook, which should ensure long-term survival of a breed that numbered fewer than 200 animals before a few people of the Lowcountry took the initiative to reverse that course.

The entities that brought the public this popular event should take a deep breath, look at what has been lost and try again to celebrate the marsh tacky. They should remember why the race was created in the first place. It was not to be the Kentucky Derby. It was to celebrate a lovable symbol of the pluck it has taken to survive in the Lowcountry. They should regroup to address logistical challenges, accept compromise and let the dear little horses again have their day in the sun.