Marsh Tacky Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Marsh Tacky Horse is native to South Carolina in the United States. It is thought to be a rare breed of horse and is an established member of the Colonial Spanish horse groups that are found along the eastern coast of the US, from Maine to Florida.

Around 300 horses from this breed are believed to be living today, making it critically endangered. A breed association was started in 2007 to being preserving the Marsh Tacky and a closed stud book was created in 2010.

Although “tacky” is often a reference to “sticky,” that is not the case with this specific breed. The Marsh Tacky gets its name for the fact that it was a common horse that the average person could afford. In the region of South Carolina during the 16th-18th centuries, this breed was the most common horse that was seen.

What Is the History of the Marsh Tacky Horse?

When Spanish explorers came to the coastal areas of South Carolina around the 16th century, they brought their horses along for the adventure. It is from these horses that the Marsh Tacky would eventually develop. As explorers turned to colonists and then eventually into larger settlements, more horses were added to the local population. Spain would even sell horses through their settlement of St. Augustine to other colonists in the region.

It wasn’t just the European settlers that found the attributes of the Spanish horses to be beneficial in the somewhat inhospitable environments of the early United States. Native tribes would also contract with the Spanish to purchase horses. The first Marsh Tackies would be used as pack horses between Florida and South Carolina, helping to establish the breed in the region.

Many of the horses in these early days were managed in a feral herd. Whenever horses would be needed, they would simply round them up, select the best, and the set the rest of them loose once again. With these feral herds living in the wetlands and swamps of the eastern coast, a certain hardiness and stamina developed within the breed. This helped it to gain strength in maneuverability and would give cavalry forces an advantage because they could perform complex maneuvers.

By the time the US Civil War came around, the Gullah community along the barrier islands of South Carolina were using these horses for agricultural work, tending their gardens and fields with the help.

Even the US military would find the characteristics of the Marsh Tacky horse to be useful during the height of World War II. Soldiers mounted on this breed would patrol the beaches of the eastern United States, serving as a lookout to prevent U-Boat attacks from the Germans.

After the war, Marsh Tackies would be used for races along the beach for about a decade. From the 1960s on, however, their popularity would begin to diminish until the entire breed was threatened.

The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association was formed in 2007 to help ensure the survival of these horses. A breed registry was started in 2010 and is currently maintained by the American Livestock Breeds. It is a closed registry, but outside horses can qualify with DNA confirmation of parentage, proof of origin, and being able to pass a visual inspection.

What Are the Characteristics of the Marsh Tacky Horse?

The typical Marsh Tacky Horse will stand at 14.2 hands high or below. The acceptable range for height is between 13-15 hands high. Most individuals within this breed will stand at 14 hands high, with a tenth in either direction here and there. 

In the past, pinto patterns and other multi-colored coats were found within this breed, but the solid coat colors were preferred and so the patterns were bred out of the Marsh Tacky. Several different coat varieties still exist within the breed, however, including black, chestnut, bay, dun, roan, and grullo.

The profile of the breed is consistent with other Colonial Spanish horses, with a slightly convex profile along the muzzle and a head that can be a little concave. The horse should have pronounced withers, a croup that is angled steeply, and a chest that is narrower than average. The shoulders are long on this breed, angled, and lead to legs that are tapered, long, and strong.

The Marsh Tacky Horse has a forehead that is wider than average and eyes that are expressive and set apart. When looking at the profile of the horse, the neck is set much lower with this breed when compared to most others.

It features a 4-beat ambling gait, brought from the Spanish heritage, but without the tripedal support that is often found in other gaited breeds. This makes It an excellent recreational riding horse because the “bounce” is virtually eliminated during the ride. From the beach to a forested trail, these horses always seem to be up for a good adventure. 

Marshy Tacky horses have an incredible stamina. Their ability to work in fields, swamps, and wetlands without panic makes them well-suited to the coastal environments of South Carolina. Even though they are smaller in size, they are still quite strong, and do well as a working animal. Although historically used for riding with children or women, they are strong enough to carry most men as well.

Although one can still find the Marsh Tacky serving in the wetlands, their strength and stamina has made them well-suited to endurance racing events. They are easy keepers and survive well in challenging environments. Coastal owners find them useful in hunting game, herding cattle, and other miscellaneous ranch work.

The Future of the Marsh Tacky Horse

In 2010, the government of South Carolina signed a bill into law that designated the Marsh Tacky as a state heritage horse. Although there isn’t a guarantee of permanent survival, the breed is about 30% of the way to reaching the population numbers that are expected to be required for such a status as of 2017.

Some efforts have been made to determine if the Marsh Tacky could work on repopulation by working with horses with similar ancestral bloodlines, such as the Banker horses of North Carolina or the Florida Cracker Horse. DNA testing showed that although the Spanish Colonial horses are all related, the Marsh Tacky is separate.

Because it lived in relative isolation for so long, unique characteristics developed within the breed and this has given it an independent status.

With continued breeding efforts underway and efforts in place to help more people recognize and understand the breed, there is a strong hope that the Marsh Tacky Horse will continue to survive. It is, after all, what this breed was built to do.