With her windows rolled down, Erica Veit gives me a lift at the ferry boat landing on Dafuskie Island. The other passengers, mostly tourists, scramble for golf carts. There are few paved roads and no grocery store, hospital or police. The hour long ride from Hilton Head Island was a sign. This place is remote and intriguing.
“There’s a lot of history. There’s a lot of mystery,” says Erica as she stops at the island's only gas pump. “There’s a lot of natural beauty.” She’s tall with a contagious smile, wearing knee high boots and a straw hat. A horse neighs from across the way. That’s her place, complete with a surfboard sign and a donation jar. Erica is the founder and the director of the Dafuskie Island Marsh Tacky Society, a nonprofit she started three years ago.
The Marsh Tacky is a unique horse breed, a colonial, Spanish mustang native to South Carolina. The smaller, hardy horses were brought over from Spain in the 1500s. Their name comes from the marshes they roamed and “tacky” is an old fashioned word that means “common”. The horses were once so common; most coastal families had one working in the fields or taking the family to church. They used to run wild on Dafuskie Island. Now there are fewer than 400 left in the entire world.
What’s more, they remained relatively isolated for years, so they didn’t cross breed and still have many of their original characteristics; generally standing 56 to 58 inches high, with a wide forehead and eyes set apart, historically multi-colored although rarer today. They’re known for their stamina and said to be sure-footed and smart.
While they may be a mustang, they apparently ride more like a Jeep. They were Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion’s preferred horse during the Revolutionary War, helping turn the tide for the patriots. The British cavalry’s big horses simply could not compete especially in boggy swamps and marshes where the Marsh Tackies were comfortable.
“The horses are like a genetic treasure chest,” says Erica. They’ve also been named the state’s official heritage horse. That explains her mission to save them. “We are going to meet two of our seven Marsh Tacky horses,” she says as she slides open the barn doors.
“This is Lowther's Lucero or Louie for short,” she says as the horse gently sniffs my microphone. The three year old stallion has beautiful eyes and is quite playful. He’s also the proud papa of the first foals to be born on the island in decades, perhaps 40 to 50 years.
No one seems to know for certain when and why the once wild horses disappeared from Dafuskie Island. But Erica believes it was in the 1980s when developers moved in. A couple hundred people now call the island home, an eclectic mix of those who are poor to rock star John Mellencamp. Islanders recently got attention when some refused to leave and rode Hurricane Matthew two years ago. Erica and her horses were among them.
She explains that during the hurricane people who owned horses herded them together. Her stallion Louie was only a year old, really not quite mature. But he was with her mares and didn’t seem to mind the storm. “Lucero took advantage of the hurricane evacuation for Hurricane Matthew to get, well busy with the ladies,” she says.
Down the road and in a separate field, the two foals Estelita and Mateo stay close to their moms. Both are 8 months old. Mateo has a rich, chocolate coat. He’s quite friendly. Estelita is more caramel and a little shy. Erica says they will leave the island to be professionally started with they are 2 years-old, returning a year later and then put up for sale when they are 4 years-old. She says part of her nonprofit’s mission is to breed as well as educate.
As we head back to the landing for the afternoon ferry, she’s excited to reveal her latest project, a Dufuskie Island Marsh Tacky museum. She stops to point out its future home, a dilapidated historic house she will renovate. “It’s very likely the family who once lived here had Marsh Tacky horses 100 years ago,” she says. “It’s perfect.”
The home has seen better days. The front porch has collapsed. The roof is buckled in. The surrounding vegetation seems to have all but taken over. Still, she she’s the beauty in what could be, and she was up early on this day getting a feed delivery by barge. Caring for horses on a bridgeless island can’t be easy.
She admits she’s always been a little horse crazy. But there’s something about this breed, strong willed and determined, like her. “Yeah, they’re worth saving. This is a service to future generations.”
The Dafuskie Island Marsh Tacky Society is always looking for historical information, documents and photographs. They can be reached at http://daufuskiemarshtackysociety.org