The steadfast Carolina marsh tacky holds a unique place in our state’s heritage and in the hearts of the riders who value it as the perfect hunting partner.
by Tom Poland
Lowcountry hunting on horseback resonates with tradition, and that agile breed, the Carolina marsh tacky, boasts an enduring legacy as well. “Tacky” comes from an English word meaning “common” or “cheap.” Nonsense. A small band of men (and women), among them David Grant and Ed and Rawlins Lowndes, knows the horse is worth a king’s ransom. They hunt deer and wild hogs as men before them did—from horseback, and they intend to keep hunting atop the marsh tacky a South Carolina tradition.
The Lowndes family has hunted on horseback for five generations. Grant owns and operates Carolina Marsh Tacky Outfitters near Darlington and breeds tackies. He brought three of his horses to the December hunt at Oaklawn, meaning something like 147 marsh tackies were elsewhere that day. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimates that fewer than 150 pure marsh tackies exist, though breeders and advocates for the horse like Grant are trying to change that.
As early as the 1500s, Spanish ships anchored along South Carolina’s coast. Their cargo included measles, smallpox and chickenpox, but it also included fine-boned horses, a measure of absolution. The Spaniards’ colonies failed, and the would-be colonists left their horses to fend for themselves near Myrtle Beach and Port Royal.
In the 1600s, stunned English explorers, mouths agape, beheld Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians riding small, rugged horses. Feral marsh tackies sought refuge in Lowcountry marshes, where they were captured and domesticated, first by native people, then by European settlers and African slaves. The even-tempered horse made a good ride for children. The Gullah tilled their fields and gardens using tacky power. During World War II, beach patrols seeking Nazi U-boats rode marsh tackies. Had spies slipped ashore, men upon marsh tackies would have been the first line of defense. No surprise there. The horse had already ridden into the history books courtesy of an earlier war.
It’s believed the legendary Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, led his irregulars into guerrilla-like forays on the sturdy, yet nimble, horses. Marsh tackies would have easily outflanked the British Army’s larger European breeds in the woods and swamps of the South Carolina “backcountry.”
Today the horses are used to pursue a quarry that’s a bit of a guerrilla fighter itself—wild Pee Dee hogs.
Let’s turn the calendar back a few years to a Saturday in the middle of August. A day that began in heavy fog has turned hot enough to melt pig iron in Roblyn’s Neck, a 14,000-acre tract along the Great Pee Dee River. By now, wild hogs with any sense have retired to the most unpleasant pieces of real estate possible, deep in the shade of thick scrub and briar thickets. The sun rains down, and thundering down a lane scraped from the ancient sea bottom, the horses kick up contrails that hang in the air. Time suspends as well—it looks like a scene from the wild, wild West.
As the day heat ups, so does the action. The land echoes with yelps, yowls, and yaps of Pee Dee curs, a dog Grant describes as the “noble Pee Dee game dog.” The music dog hunters love sounds out—a howling bay that signals the dogs have cornered their quarry. That epic do-or-die last stand unfolds. Somewhere afar a banshee-like squeal makes the hair stand on the back of your neck. Riding point, Grant and company gallop off, puffs of smoke bursting from unshod hooves. “Most of the time,” said Grant, “I ride point. I get the honor of being the first to bust up briars, jump a ditch, cross or swim a slough, or dodge snakes.” A good point horse, he adds, “will go to the bay on its own when it hears the dogs.”
Closer to the dogs, bedlam—pig squeals and chaotic dog vocals. Grant plunges through head-high brambles, briars, and undergrowth clawing his way to the action. There’s Bill, diminutive leader of the curs, nipping at a 200-pound sow.
Grant’s adamant about protecting his dogs. He hunts with a GPS tracking system that gets him to the bay quicker than the old days. “I often ride right into a fight if my dogs are getting cut-up from a bad hog.” Grant says he has a “pact” with his Pee Dee curs. “If they have the grit to hunt all day, fight everything a Pee Dee river bottom can throw at them, run a hog through Hell and back, and fight to the death if need be, I will do whatever it takes to get to them.”
Rider Wylie Bell first learned about the marsh tacky when she met Grant at the Hilton Head Marsh Tacky Beach Run. She ended up riding one of Grant’s tackies there. “The first thing I noticed,” she said, “was how easily tackies adapt to new situations. Here were these five-year-old horses thrown into a thousand people, racing horses next to a rolling ocean. And they handled it amazingly well. People were crowding around them all day, and no one got kicked or bitten or run over by a spooked horse.”
Pursuing deer in December, wild hogs in August, tilling gardens come spring, racing at Hilton Head, defeating the British, patrolling for German submarines and an anchor for tradition—the marsh tacky does it all. What else can be said about this horse for all seasons as a horse pure and simple? Bell hits the nail on the head.
“The marsh tacky is simply better put together to handle riding in the woods and swamps. They’re smaller and more agile, their hide is thicker, and they have good, solid hooves. Marsh tackies are not big horses, but they ride big. They have huge hearts and sharp minds, and for people who own them, they’ll be that horse of a lifetime.”
Editor’s Note: The Santa Elena Foundation is hosting its second annual Lowcountry Fair Saturday, November 3, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Cotton Hall Plantation, off Routes 17/21 in northern Beaufort County. The event will include marsh tacky events. (A longer version of this feature first appeared in South Carolina Wildlife magazine.)