Group works to save fading Marsh Tackies

Susan Day (left) and Jenifer Ravenel tend a Marsh Tacky on April 21 at Dixieland Farms on Yonge's Island.

YONGE'S ISLAND — A tin roof sheet bangs in a gust of wind. A lot of horses would have been startled. Star just looks up from grazing, calm as a cat, turning her head with a comely tilt so she can see with her one eye.

"She's a quiet, people mare. I've gotten right in there and touched her baby as she foaled. I can get in there and rub all over that baby," said Jenifer Ravenel, whose family owns Star.

The gentle Star is a Marsh Tacky, the Lowcountry's own feral swamp horse, right down to her dorsal stripe and zebra-striped legs. She is a descendant of hundreds of Spanish horses that ran in the sea island marshes for generations.

At 28 years old, a prodigious age for a horse, Star is about to produce her 19th foal. Since she lost an eye to a hanging branch on a hog hunt as a 2-year-old, she's become a prolific breeder.

She has to be. She's among the last of the do-it-all breed.

Fewer than 200 of the small, skinny-haunched Marsh Tackies remain. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers the breed, which ran wild from Myrtle Beach down to the Georgia coast, to be critically endangered. The breed dissipated as their marshlands were developed. Farm horses were set aside for more prestigious, "prettier" breeds once the tractor arrived to do the work.

The Carolina Marsh Tacky Association is mounting a charge to save the tradition by attracting prospective owners with a registry, DNA authentication and touches like an effort to get it recognized as the state horse.

This is the plucky warrior that Francis Marion used to cut through the bogs to bedevil the British in the American Revolution. For farm families, it was a work-all-day and go-to-meeting horse, the mudder deer-hunting horse, intelligent and steady, unafraid to muck the bottoms where thoroughbreds would buck, living off marsh grasses other horses wouldn't touch.

"The swamps, that's where they excel. Water chest deep they'll swim through. They'll cross bogs that other horses won't and they'll go smoothly, without bucking," said Ed Ravenel, Jenifer's father.

That life, like the horse, is about gone.

Feral and farm-bred tackies were native to the sea islands when Ed Ravenel, 68, was growing up. He remembers riding them with his brother, Charleston County School Board member Arthur Ravenel Jr., to tend the family's cattle on then-undeveloped Kiawah Island. On the remote barrier island, cattle became all but wild and ran from herders. But in the summer they waded into the surf to escape the flies and biting bugs.

The Ravenel brothers would hop on tackies, muck their way to the island and sneak through the dunes to surprise the cattle in the water, where they could get a rope on them, then herd them home.

The horse simply doesn't quit.

"If you're going from here to Charleston," Ed Ravenel said, standing by the stable at his Yonge's Island farm, "I've got those strong quarter horses here and these skinny little Marsh Tackies, and I'd take a Marsh Tacky any time."

At the Ravenel farm, after a visitor has worked one of the cutting horses and come away impressed, the family will ask, "You want to ride a real horse?"

That's why Ravenel has joined the handful of other owners across the Carolinas to form the Marsh Tacky Association, which held its first meeting earlier this month. Among them are people like D.P. Lowther of Ridgeland, who owns more than half of the remaining breed and bought the horses from Hilton Head as the island developed into a resort.

When the 75-year-old farmer was growing up, "Everybody had them, black and white folk. They used them for plowing, pulling the wagon, going to the store, everything. Children rode them to school," he said. "It's what built the Lowcountry. That's what kept them going; that's what kept them alive. That was transportation."

Island by island, the Ravenels developed their land as the Lowcountry grew. But they hung onto their tackies.

"You can take a tacky that was born in the wild and never seen a human being, and in a couple of days you can be riding it. They break out so quiet and smooth," Ravenel said. "People are losing land, losing interest in the horses. Jenifer is the only of my children interested. But I've got grandchildren coming along that have shown a lot of interest."