Horse racing on Daufuskie Island on Melrose at the Beach Resort
Marsh Tacky races in South Carolina
The horses arrived by barge. Most had been here before.
They stayed at the Melrose stables, a snazzy joint on Daufuskie Island that housed some handsome looking equine specimens.
Daufuskie was once home to freed slaves who had been brought over to work cotton fields and shuck oysters for commercial sale before the waters of the nearby Savannah river became so polluted that the oyster industry shut down and never recuperated.
The island still houses residents of those original freed slaves living there, but they are difficult to find. You have to wander down some long dirt roads to find them and most work on the island at the private golf courses and resorts.
There are probably more visitors than residents on the island today as the Spanish bred Marsh Tacky horses have arrived to race one another along a stretch of beach that looks across the river to the Harbor Town Golf Links, home to the PGA Golf Tour.
Boats, from sail boats to pontoons and even kayaks and a barge are gathering as the tide goes out on the powder beige sands of the beach where the horses will soon compete to see who is the fastest.
The race is broken into heats where two to three horses race one another; mares against mares, geldings against geldings and stallions against stallions.
There are a few thrills and spills as horses spook and saddles break and two girls go tumbling.
One is sent to the hospital on the mainland with a broken collar bone, but arrives back in time for the after party. Another lands on her hip in a spill that has the audience gasping,, but she limps away grim faced as her horse runs back to the main herd.
Marsh Tackys originally came over with the Spaniards and were small horses, with large hooves and heads relative to body size. They looked sort of like a cross between a Tennessee Walking Horse and a mustang, but these horses at the beach today seem a bit more refined than earlier horses that were largely used as work horses on plantations and often ran feral on barrier islands.
A group has formed to preserve the breed which was in danger of disappearing.
One of the stallions there is a dark blue roan or grulla, and has zebra striping from his hocks to his dark socks and a dark stripe down his smokey blue hide.
His mane is thick and dark and his mouth is small. He looks more mustang than Marsh Tacky and is gorgeous to look at.
One of his sons is racing today too. There are a lot of families here and they seem as down to earth and friendly as the horses, which allow visitors to pet them as they wait by the sidelines for their turn to come.
Some of the horses look like miniature draft horses and are stocky with thick necks, while others have the more typical Marsh Tacky appearance with thin delicate legs, sharp, wide hooves (which apparently kept them from sinking in the marsh like heavier horses) and narrow necks and bodies.
The name tacky derived from the British and meant cheap or common, but the horses are considered a rare breed today and nearly died out entirely.
There are only about 300 remaining but owners are working to keep the breed alive and help promote the horse's versatility in events like the one today where the horses race along the beach.
The colors range from clay red dun to deep brown; almost black and the riders vary from what appears to be late teens to late fifties. Both men and women are riding and some compete against each other. It is only the horses divided into breed categories!
It is late April and the cool morning is met with a warming sun and a nice sea breeze to keep the dreaded biting sand gnats at bay.
Two by two the horses line up along a stretch of the beach and are waved on by a starter who bravely stands between them.
Some horses wait patiently to start. Others spin and turn and back up toward the ocean, threatening to dump their riders in the brink.
There are a few glitches and a few spills, but mostly things run smoothly and the crowds are well pleased.
The horse's mostly bare feet slap the wet sands of the beach like riffle fire, as they kick up a spray of powdered sand, clamped together with the salt water of the receding sea.
A group of party goers on a pontoon, who are being eyed suspiciously by Island Security are now stranded for three hours until the tide changes. They appear to have more alcohol than sense. Several riders go out after their race and ride right up to the boats. The tides go out as rapidly as they come in, catching many boaters off guard and stuck until the waters return again on their six hour cycle of highs and lows.
A few kayakers even brave the choppy waters to get an upfront view.
Old school buses and golf carts carry visitors to and from the race area with a mass exodus of golf carts trying to leave at the same time and coming close to running over riders and guests.
A local law enforcement agent says that people don't really think of golf cars like real cars so tend to drive and park wherever they feel like it, so cautions those on foot to be careful of where they are going.
Almost every adult has a beer or wine cooler in hand and talk is on the party where more booze is to flow. For many family adventurers it is time to go back to the ferry and head for home.
In the end there are many trophies and ribbons given out to various riders who won their heats and or the final race and everyone goes home happy knowing they have done their best and proud of their horses for having the heart, courage and stamina to compete.
If you would like to learn more about Marsh Tacky's or Daufuskie Island, click on the links to each.
Daufuskie is a fun place to explore, but you need to bring plenty of water and a good pair of walking shoes unless you have the near $100 to rent a golf cart that may or may not get you all the way around the island!
There are some expensive resorts there or you can rent a smaller cabin up near the water ferries and the restaurant.
Many of the roads on the tourist map are actually more like trails; often overgrown, but the natives are friendly and willing to point you back to where you need to be and many people even offer to stop and give you a ride to where you want to be.