Carolina Marsh Tacky

Carolina Marsh Tacky Association

6685 Quarter Hoss Lane

Hollywood, South Carolina 29449

Tough, beautiful, and full of history, the Carolina Marsh Tacky is one of America’s best-kept secrets. Few know of this exquisite little breed, and those who do cannot understand how such a wonderful riding horse has passed through recent decades almost unnoticed and is now slipping into threatened oblivion. It is an unpretentious horse, full of steady endurance and shining personality. It is surefooted and swamp savvy. As a trail and hunting horse, it cannot be beat.

According to the Gullah culture, preserved by the descendants of the South Carolina island plantation slaves, the word “tacky” means little. Tagged onto the word “marsh,” the name means little marsh horse. Marsh Tackys were as common as sparrows at one time, and thus were not as highly valued compared to blooded horses brought to the eastern colonies. So “tacky” also became synonymous with meaning something cheap or common to the colonists. This, however did not reflect the value the Gullah people placed on their Marsh Tackys, who used them for everything from plowing to racing. Every Gullah family had at least one Marsh Tacky and depended on them for their livelihood. Marsh Tackys were plucky, enduring, and thrifty horses.

Once plentiful in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia, the Marsh Tacky has now dwindled to dangerously low numbers, taking their last stand in South Carolina. It is one of the rarest and most endangered horse breeds on the planet.

The Tacky is an eastern member of the Colonial Spanish equine group and is thought to be most closely related to the Florida Cracker Horses from the same group. It is likely that both also share some close genetic heritage with the Banker Horses that exist wild in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.


Carolina Marsh Tackys are naturally beautiful. This one has the desirable chiseled head. Dwain Snyder

The Carolina Marsh Tacky was one of the first colonial breeds developed in America, primarily from horses brought to this continent some five hundred years ago. Its rootstock began with Spanish horses transported during the exploration and colonization of America. These historic horses were tough, surviving terrible ocean voyages often with insufficient forage. From this foundation and down through the centuries, the Tacky basically has not changed much in all. It remains an easy keeper in extreme circumstances and continues to display classic Colonial Spanish traits of that era, unlike other evolved types of Spanish horses that are popular today.

DNA and visual evidence suggests that there are a few Tackys that have retained a high degree of the Iberian type—another time capsule of genetic material from colonial times. Most of these Tackys have stayed small, as their heritage would dictate. They average 13 hands and weigh under 700 pounds.


Two hundred years ago, free-roaming Tackys were so plentiful on the Carolinas and Georgia coast that they were almost considered a nuisance. Still, to the original colonists, they were a reliable form of transportation and the farm tractor of that time. They were also important mounts for the original cattle drives of America. No doubt the Native Americans along the southeastern seaboard prized these hearty, savvy horses too; the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw all likely came into contact with the little horses.

When the settlers began importing blooded horses—Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and other oriental horses—from overseas, portions of the hearty little Spanish horse populations managed to remain pure. Tackys thrived particularly well in feral and semi-feral states in the South Carolina Lowcountry marshlands, where other animals would have perished. They were often captured, tamed, and made into reliable mounts for children. Many worked the fields or pulled buggies and carts.

They were also used for crossbreeding. It is theorized that Tackys were used early in the development of the foundation bloodlines of the Quarter Horse and the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses.

Tackys were probably America’s first warhorses. They were used in a military capacity as the mounts of Francis Marion and his militia to lead raids in South Carolina against the British during the American Revolutionary War. Marion and his mounted men darted out of the Carolina marshes to attack, then withdrew quickly back into the waters where the British horses had difficulty following. This is how Marion earned his famed nickname, “the Swamp Fox.” With little ammunition, Marion was successful with his lightening-quick ambushes and raids, a feat for which the Marsh Tacky was particularly adept.

Throughout the 1800s, Tackys were reported as far north as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and as far south as St. Simons Island, Georgia, almost to the Florida border. The first recorded documentation of horses on the islands came during the American Civil War. Union troops stormed Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and when the slaves there were set free, they were offered “forty acres and a Marsh Tacky” to begin their new lives. For these people, Tacky horses were instrumental toward establishing new homes in the United States.

In the years following the American Civil War, Tackys continued to be useful. Their ability to navigate safely through the marshy swamps made them exceptional saddle and hunting horses. They were part of everyday life, pulling plows, hauling firewood, and drawing wagons to market, as well as mounts for hunting wild game and transporters that hauled the family carriage to church. They carried the mail, pulled the doctor’s buggy, and got the teacher to the schoolhouse. For the Gullah farmers, the Marsh Tacky was as indispensable as the tractor is today.

Recent History

Modern history, both documented and anecdotal, indicates Tackys still roamed freely by the hundreds in the early twentieth century on the islands off South Carolina, including Hilton Head. In those days, Tackys were a way of life for both Gullah families and whites; everyone on Hilton Head, at one time or another, had a Marsh Tacky—or two or three. Racing derbies were often held on Hilton Head until the 1960s, with Tackys running on a stretch of beach, rounding a turn, and returning to the finish.

Native islanders continued to breed and use the Tackys until the 1950s, when developers started paving roads and buying up real estate. By 1974, one lone Tacky survivor was left cropping grass on the lawn of a local island restaurant.

A few dedicated breeders elsewhere quietly hung on. Precious few Marsh Tacky breeders have doggedly persevered through to the present time, and now few Tackys can be found beyond those preserved by these breeders. The most recent band was only “discovered” in the late 1990s.

Today, the Marsh Tacky’s range has been reduced to South Carolina, where they are critically endangered and number somewhere between 125 to 175 individuals. The Equus Survival Trust lists them as extremely critical.

Only a handful of breeders and conservationists stand between extinction of the Tacky and its continuance. Concerted efforts have been made to save the last remaining bands. Additionally, DNA testing has been done to determine the Spanish connection and to establish a breeding management plan to keep the gene pool genetically diverse and healthy. Toward this end, the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association and its breeders are striving to document and process records.

The largest surviving herd is with the Lowther family in South Carolina. This family has bred Tackys for three generations, tracing the original herd all the way back to the American Civil War in South Carolina. D. P. Lowther now has more than one hundred pure Tacky horses. They are divided into several breeding groups and display a wide variety of solid colors, including grullas, duns, and roans, as well as primitive markings and patterns. Yet all have the same distinctive and related Tacky look: a straight or convex Iberian profile with wide foreheads; deep, powerful chests, though often narrow in width; and hindquarters that slope steeply, all evidence of the Barbary blood. Hooves are typically flinty and durable; none seem to require anything but proper trimming.


Marsh Tackies should be surefooted in wooded and swampy lands, and have the ability to get out of boggy areas calmly, safely, and effectively. The ideal temperament is alert but calm, levelheaded, and not prone to panic.

Defects include horses that are nervous and flighty, as well as ones that are dull with little alertness.

General Appearance: Marsh Tacky horses have traditionally been balanced and athletic. They are also known for being easy keepers on forages with little supplemental feeding.

Gait: Most Tacky horses have a fluid, smooth trot. A few in the past have been gaited, and this tendency is not penalized should it reappear in the breed. A short, rough, choppy trot is to be avoided.

Height: The usual height is from 14 to 14.2 hands high at the withers. The usual range in height is from 13 to 15 hands, with few being below or above this range. At the extremes of the range, horses tend to lose overall typeness. A tall or short typey horse is acceptable, but horses that are too short or too tall without strong overall type should not be chosen as breeding animals.

Head: The head is important as it relates to breed type. Outside breeding shows up readily in the head conformation. The profile of the head is usually flat or slightly concave, but becomes slightly convex from the nasal region to the top of the muzzle. Some are more uniformly convex, while others are nearly straight. To be avoided are fine heads that are markedly dished, like the Arabian’s, or heads that are markedly convex from poll to muzzle.

From the front view, the head has a characteristic shape. It is wide between the eyes, then tapers and is finely chiseled, or defined, through the mid region. Most typical heads flare back out at the region of the nostrils and then taper to a fine muzzle. The most usual off-type is wider through the mid region, and coarser, thicker, and rounder through the muzzle.


An example of primitive leg stripes are quite noticeable on this Tacky, as is the bi-colored, long tail. Equus Survival Trust

The nostrils are usually fine and crescent shaped at rest. They flare larger and more open when excited or under exertion. To be avoided are large, coarse, round, open nostrils.

The ears are usually short to medium length, and most have a distinctive inward pointing notch at the tips. To be avoided are long, straight, thick, wide, or boxy ears with no inward notch at the tip.

The eyes are usually large and bold, though some have smaller eyes, which are acceptable. The eyes are high on the head. To be avoided are large, bold eyes that are low on the head.

The profile of the muzzle from the side is refined, with the top lip usually longer than the bottom lip. Avoid coarse and thick lower lips that are loose, large, and project beyond the upper lip.

Neck: The neck is usually wide from the side, though it is still typical to have a slight ewe neck. The neck is attached lower on the chest than most other breeds. Avoid necks that are thin, long, and set high on the chest.

Withers: The withers are usually pronounced and obvious, or even sharp. Avoid thick, low, meaty withers.

Back: The back is usually short and strong. Some have a longer back, but weak, long backs that are weakly tied into croup and withers should be avoided.

Rear: The croup and hip are important indicators of type. The usual conformation is angled from the top of the croup to the tail base at a 30-degree slope, although some are steeper than this. Flat, high croups are not typical.

The tail is usually set on low so that it appears to fall off the croup smoothly. A high tailset above the angle of the croup is not typical.

The rear end usually has a distinct break at the point of the hip, so that the line from the top of croup to point of hip is one line or curve. Then this line breaks and continues as a different curve from the point of the hip to the back of the gaskin. Avoid a smooth, round curve from top of croup to the gaskin, as seen in Quarter Horses. Overly conditioned horses may be difficult to evaluate on this detail, as fat can obscure the true conformation here.

From the rear view, the spine is usually at the top of the rear, and the muscles taper down off of this (rafter-hipped). This is a combination of the type and amount of muscling, as well as the location of the hip joint. To be avoided is thicker muscling and higher hips that result in a distinct deep crease down the middle, so that the midpoint is lower rather than higher.


This bay roan Tacky mare has the proper conformation, including a wide neck, short, strong back, and deep chest. Equus Survival Trust

From the side, the hips should be long and well angled, rather than steep and short.

Front: From the side, the chest is deep and usually accounts for about half the height of the horse. From the front, the chest is narrow and the legs usually point up to an “A” shape at the chest, rather than a broader flatter appearance. This aspect varies in the breed, and historic photos show more narrowness here than can be seen on many modern horses. Expect variation in this aspect, but very wide chests are penalized. These usually accompany heads that are off-type from the front view.

The shoulder is ideally long and has a 45- to 55-degree angle. Short shoulders that are steeper than 55 degrees are not desirable.

From the front view, the limbs should fall straight from the shoulder to the ground.

Rear Limbs: From the rear view, the rear limbs are usually straight or turned slightly inward at the hocks, but then straight from there to the ground. The legs are flexible, and at the trot, the hind track can land past the front track. The muscling is long and tapering. Avoid excessive cow hocks as well as heavy, bunchy muscling (most obvious in the gaskin) or tight tendons.

There is usually no feathering on the fetlocks. Avoid coarse, abundant feathering.

Feet are balanced and of the size to fit the overall weight of the horse. Hooves are tough and wear well.

Chestnuts: These vary from small and nearly nonexistent, to larger and more obvious. The most typical are the small, flat ones, and some horses lack rear chestnuts entirely. Very large and thick chestnuts should be penalized.

Color: Any color is permissible, but some colors are more common. The most common colors include bay, black, grullo, dun, blue roan, and bay roan. Chestnut, red dun, and strawberry roan are also common. Some of them have primitive markings, like dorsal stripes and zebra leg stripes. Many horses have little or no white markings on them, while some have extensive white on the legs and heads. Other colors are no indication by themselves of crossbreeding. Mating of individuals with the most white on them could produce foals with enough white to have body spots.

Most of the manes and tails are long, also indicating their Spanish heritage. No doubt the longer hair was retained in the New World as a useful trait, protecting them against flies and mosquitoes rampant in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Some of them have primitive markings, like dorsal stripes and zebra leg stripes.

Temperament: Temperament is one of the most important aspects of a Marsh Tacky, and unfortunately is impossible to observe by just looking at the horse.

For all its ruggedness, the Carolina Marsh Tacky is a gentle, good-natured horse, full of curiosity and, when trained, becomes a trusted, intelligent partner. During most of its existence, the Tacky had to survive by foraging on its own and managed to thrive; it has retained this trait and remained a thrifty easy-keeper.

Tackies are excellent on trails, surefooted, and efficient in water situations. Those who have ridden them rave about their uncanny ability to negotiate swamps without panic or fuss, including rolling over to get out when they get stuck. Tackys seem to have a built-in “woods sense” and a natural ability for negotiating water and mud. “If a horse panics in the water, then it is not a Marsh Tacky,” boasts one breeder. Another claims that Tacky horses “know how to wear their feet,” attesting to their surefootedness, smooth ride, and thoughtful approach to rough terrain. They are smart, calmly taking in unfamiliar situations, and this innate intelligence helps with their training. They don’t have the panic and flight attitude of other breeds, and their gentleness is appreciated especially by women and children, yet they are bold when used for hunting or working cattle. They show great promise for endurance, competitive trail, barrel racing, dressage, or event competitions.

Tacky horse owner David Grant states:

You can have the prettiest horse in the world, but if it doesn’t have enough sense or hardiness to survive, what do you have? The Tacky has an innate sense of self-preservation. I have ridden my grulla stud for one year now, and he has pulled me out of some pretty tough situations, and he is only three years old. On one hunt, we fell into a hole large enough for him to roll down into. He just rolled out from under me and literally crawled out. The most amazing thing is that he came back to get me. He has already developed an ear for the dogs baying and will pick his own way to them. Tackies are very easy keepers. I have fifteen and have had very few problems. They stay fat on grass and hay, their feet require very little if any trimming, their resistance to insects is astounding, and the list of their many attributes goes on and on.

The Carolina Marsh Tacky is an honored historic breed that has survived more than four hundred years virtually intact. It is a national treasure forever stamped on the hearts of those who know it.

Credit: Victoria Tollman and Equus Survival Trust

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