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Marsh tackies will gallop on Hilton Head Island's Mitchelville Beach next month as Gullah Celebration organizers rejuvenate a nearly forgotten Lowcountry pastime.
Racing the squatty little horses on the beach had been a Gullah tradition for generations. It faded about the same time that the island's robust growth kicked in. As Hilton Head modernized, fewer native islanders farmed, so they no longer needed marsh tackies.
The horses became more and more rare. Now they're almost extinct.
Michael Cohen's father stopped racing his marsh tacky horse, Jerry, in the mid 1960s. Jerry had been a perennial favorite in the island's Christmas races.
Now, 40 years later, a group of marsh tacky aficionados hopes that holding the races again will help new residents understand the horses' important role in building South Carolina's Lowcounty.
Cohen owns one of the last surviving marsh tackies on Hilton Head. He keeps 14-year-old Starbright because it reminds him of his youth, his Gullah heritage and a mission: He wants to save the breed, which has dwindled to fewer than 150 worldwide.
"When I was a kid, the marsh tacky was how you got to church, it was how you plowed the fields and how you had fun," Cohen said. "Everybody had one, as far back as I can remember, but now they're dying off."
Tackies are 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 humid conditions. They are sure-footed in marshes and swamps, which made them perfect for the Lowcountry.
After each year's harvests, Gullah residents would gather on the north shores of Hilton Head to race marsh tackies across the sand. The winner took home bragging rights.
"I remember my dad puffing his chest out really big when he would win," Cohen said. "It was really a big time for us."
Cohen plans to race this year, and will become the fifth-generation Cohen to do so.
Next month's race, planned for Feb. 22, will be modeled as closely as possible on the old races. Horses will run 150 yards down the beach to an obstacle, then return. Heats will continue until only two winners remain. Twenty horses are expected to run.
The race will play an important part in the Gullah Celebration, said James Mitchell Jr., president and CEO of the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, which is planning the events.
"We want to show all the different things that were important to the Gullah people," Mitchell said. "That race is definitely one of them because the tackies played a crucial role in the development in this region."
Before the race, owners will answer questions about their marsh tackies, Mitchell said.
"We're hoping to educate people about how few of these horses are left," he said. "That's one reason we reached out to the Coastal Discovery Museum -- because they're working to try and save the tacky."
Michael Marks, executive director of the museum, said he's taken a more active role in the festival this year and is helping plan the race on the beach.
"We don't know if 30 people or 500 people are going to show up," he said. "It's a unique event so we know it will draw a crowd, but we're not sure what will happen."
Among marsh tackies owners, D.P. Lowther is a power broker. The 73-year-old Ridgeland native owns about 100 of the horses, or two-thirds of all those remaining, including 50 mares. He's been selling the horses for years and his family has bred them since he was a child.
"There's no better horse than a tacky," he said. "You can run for 40 miles one way and 40 miles back the other way and they won't get tired. They're work horses."
Lowther is president of the South Carolina Marsh Tacky Association and won a 1967 tacky race on Mitchelville Beach.
He keeps meticulous DNA records of his horses to ensure pure breeding and feels saving the tacky is crucial.
The breed was designated as critically near extinction by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which is working to increase marsh tackies' numbers to 1,000.
Efforts to save them have created a niche of tacky aficionados.
David Grant of Florence owns 14 tackies. He didn't grow up with them, but after a hunting trip four years ago with a tacky, he fell in love with them. He started breeding marsh tackies and now uses them exclusively when leading hunting expeditions.
"Tackies are beautiful and sturdy," he said. "They were what colonized the South Carolina area and helped develop it and it's a shame what is happening."
Some legislators want to make the marsh tacky South Carolina's official state horse. They cite the breed's role during the American Revolution, when marsh tackies carried some soldiers into battle.
Lowther wants more people get involved in the effort to save marsh tackies from extinction.
"I'll sell a tacky to anybody that wants one," he said. "But if more people don't start buying them and breeding the purebreds, we're going to lose part of our history."