While it is not unusual for a state or a region to host a particular species of wildlife, South Carolina has the distinction of being the primary place of origin for at least three specific domesticated animal breeds: the Marsh Tacky, Carolina Dog, and Boykin Spaniel. The history of how they came to be is fascinating, as are the accolades heaped on these breeds by those fortunate enough to own them.
The Marsh Tacky
In a unique way, Caroline Knight shares a connection with one of South Carolina’s most famous historical figures, Francis Marion. Dubbed the “Swamp Fox” by British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton because of the crafty ways he eluded his enemies in South Carolina’s swamps and marshes during the Revolutionary War, the Patriot rode astride an interesting horse, the Marsh Tacky.
Descended from the Spanish horse, the Marsh Tacky survived when many explorers to America in the 1600s did not. These hearty horses became feral, surviving on the sea island beaches and in the Lowcountry marshes and swamps. The British deemed the horses “tacky,” or common, because they were not of a recognizable and documented bloodline, thus the term, combined with the environment in which they became best suited, stuck.
Caroline, whose Antiquity Ranch is in Easley, grew up with the Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley County as her backyard. She was raised on the back of her Marsh Tacky, Apache, who died in the late 1990s at 35 years of age. Later, in 2015, she decided to get back on a Marsh Tacky so she purchased a 4 1/2-year-old mare, Alejandra.
She is so passionate about the breed that she currently serves as secretary of the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, and while she has owned other breeds of horses, the Marsh Tacky will always be her first choice.
The average Marsh Tacky is a small-horse size, starting at about 14 hands and weighing between 700 to 900 pounds. They have a deep chest and are easy keepers, which means they maintain nutrition and weight on little food compared to other horse breeds. Marsh Tackies are less refined in appearance than some other breeds, often with a long mane and a forelock that sweeps wildly over their eyes. Most have solid colorations that range from cream to chocolate. Some even have primitive markings, such as dorsal stripe down the back or faint zebra striping on the legs or shoulder blades.
The common refrain shared by Marsh Tacky owners is that they are thinking horses. “They had to be to survive for so many years with little or no care,” says Jackie McFadden, who grew up with horses but was given two Marsh Tackies, River and Yago, six years ago by D.P. Lowther, founder of CMTA. Because she worked to pass the 2010 bill naming the Marsh Tacky as the South Carolina State Heritage Horse, D.P., who resides in Ridgeland, felt that she should own some. D.P. is credited with saving the breed and having the largest Marsh Tacky herd in the world.
“They are smart, friendly, family horses,” says Jackie. She rides for recreation, but is so fascinated with the breed that she is collaborating on a book about them.
Jackie first became obsessed with them as an elementary school student working on her required South Carolina history project. She is a charter member of CMTA and served as the secretary for seven years. She built the organization’s current website, which displays her professional photographs of the horses.
Wild pig hunters and extreme trail riders seek out Marsh Tackies because, Jackie says, “They think first, then choose how to react. When bogged down in swamp mud, they don’t thrash around and worsen the situation the way a typical horse would because of their flight instincts. Instead, they do what some have coined the Bog Roll — lie on their sides and pull themselves out with their hooves.”
Jackie adds, “They are interested in their surroundings, making it feel like you are exploring with a friend. I’ve ridden other trail horses that were simply trying to get from point A to point B. It’s not nearly as fun.”
Well-known historic figures who felt similarly about the Marsh Tacky include Wall Street magnate Bernard Baruch of Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown as well as Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built a plantation in Yemassee for a client that included a barn for his Marsh Tackies.
Caroline explains that although Marsh Tackies are known as durable hunting and trail riding horses, they are becoming respected for their acumen in a show ring as well.
Betsy Cate, who lives in Eastover, has owned Thoroughbreds, warmbloods, and other breeds over the years, but her interest in Marsh Tackies was piqued about 10 years ago.
“I figured that if I’m going to live in South Carolina, I should have the South Carolina State Heritage Horse.” This past year she finally purchased a 4-year-old filly, Chessie. Since she and her daughter, Elizabeth Grove, have always ridden English and Elizabeth teaches hunter/jumper at Congaree Farms in Hopkins, she wanted her Marsh Tacky trained in the English riding discipline as opposed to Western riding.
Betsy says that although Chessie was only halter broken when purchased, meaning she could be led around, she was saddled the day after purchase. Betsy says her Marsh Tacky has been compliant ever since. “She’s so quiet and sensible, gentle and responsive. She’s been easy to train. She goes toward things like jumps, not away from them.”
For many years, the Marsh Tacky was in danger of extinction until dedicated breeders like D.P. focused on increasing numbers. Jackie says, “His love for the breed and his dedication to keeping the breed pure is the reason why we have Marsh Tackies today.”
CMTA, formed in 2007 primarily to preserve the breed and share its history, estimates more than 430 Marsh Tackies currently exist. Many live in South Carolina, but Marsh Tackies also live in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“CMTA works with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which owns the Marsh Tacky studbook register. They handle all horse registrations and maintain an accurate count of live horses with the help of owners and breeders. We are dedicated to getting them off the critically endangered list. They survived the elements for hundreds of years and deserve the attention they are now receiving, as well as every opportunity to thrive and succeed in whatever discipline they are trained,” Caroline says.
Because so few people own Marsh Tackies compared to other breeds of horses, such as American Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians, the owners are a close-knit lot. This past year, the inaugural Lowcountry Fair with Historical Flair in Beaufort drew together many for a Marsh Tacky horse race and other activities. Other races have been held on the islands of Hilton Head, Daufuskie, and Kiawah. CMTA members, about 100 strong, have the opportunity to gather at an annual meeting. Caroline says a number of Marsh Tacky owners also participate in an April and November trail ride in Ward. Plus, Marsh Tacky owners sometimes ride in re-enactments at the annual farm day at Old McCaskill’s Farm in Rembert.
At this past year’s Marsh Tacky Horse Performance at the South Carolina State Fair, the Marsh Tacky was touted as “South Carolina’s best kept secret.” However, those who love the breed want more South Carolinians to know about them.
“I find everything about them fascinating,” says Jackie.
The Boykin Spaniel
Many own these mid-sized dogs, but Cantey Wright can boast of being descended from the man who actually “invented” the breed. His great-grandfather, Lemuel Whitaker Boykin, known as “Whit” to friends and family, enjoyed duck hunting. He used Chesapeake Bay and Labrador dogs to retrieve, but these 80-pound dogs were not suited for getting in and out of the small boats hunters used to peruse the Wateree River swamp in search of the birds.
Cantey explains the lengths to which Whit embarked in order to create just the right retriever dog for the pastime he loved. “Starting with a mixed breed spaniel his hunting buddy Alec White sent him, he began cross breeding with Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Springer, Cocker, and American Water Spaniels, some pointers, and a Brittany Spaniel,” he says. “The result was a small, solid dog with a double coat, webbed paws, and a strong innate hunting instinct. The color is a solid, rich liver (reddish brown) or dark chocolate, allowing for a small, white spot on the chest. No other white markings are allowed. The folks who hunted in the central parts of South Carolina, especially the Camden area, came to refer to these dogs as Whit Boykin’s Spaniels and eventually just Boykin Spaniels.”
Although the Boykin is a relatively new official breed to the United States, Pamela Kadlec of Just Ducky Kennel in Edgefield says that people have been developing new dog breeds for hundreds of years. Most recent are the designer breeds, like a Berndoodle (a cross between a Bernese mountain dog and a Poodle). But the Boykin, quintessentially South Carolinian, is also referred to as the “little brown dog” and “the swamp poodle” — as its hair is sometimes slightly curly.
Cantey explains that hunters in these parts love them because they will not rock the boat when hunting ducks. “A Boykin is generally referred to as a ‘companionable gun dog’ for its natural hunting abilities and its loving personality as a family pet. They are high energy dogs and require a lot of physical activity as well as mental challenges,” he says. “They do best when they have a job to do, whether hunting, field tests, dock diving, agility competitions, or just retrieving tennis balls. If they are bored and not exercised sufficiently, they are known to chew (and swallow) things. Owners laughingly refer to them as ‘Destroykins,’ though this is less often the case for physically active dogs.”
Cantey, of course, owns Boykins: Lem’s Lady Sarah B, B for short, and Show Me Charleston Brown, Charlie for short. He serves as a sponsor member of the Boykin Spaniel Society and advises those interested in purchasing a true Boykin, one that can trace its lineage to his great-grandfather’s dogs, to ask to see the Boykin Spaniel Society registration papers. He explains that The Boykin Spaniel Society operates the original and definitive registry for purebred Boykin Spaniels. The American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club also recognize the Boykin Spaniel breed. Cantey further notes that if a dog is BSS registered, it can be registered with the AKC and UKC. If parent dogs are AKC/UKC registered, but not BSS registered, the puppies cannot be registered with the BSS. A non-BSS dog registered with AKC and/or UKC is still a “real Boykin,” but not eligible for a long list of benefits available to dogs in the Boykin Spaniel Registry.
Says Pamela, “Those looking for a Boykin should make sure to find a reputable breeder to help insure their pup is from health-tested stock and not from a ‘puppy mill.’ With popularity comes those more interested in money than breeding sound puppies.”
She acquired her first Boykin in 1997 and now has several that she trains; she competes in UKC and AKC hunt tests as well as Boykin Spaniel field trials. Pamela is also a full-time gun dog trainer and keeps 10 client dogs as well as her personal dogs. “The Boykin Spaniel is an outgoing, friendly, smart gun dog. They have an easy going, sweet temperament and should get along with everyone and everything,” she says.
The Carolina Dog
The dog that may get passed off as just a mix-breed mutt may actually be a real breed, referred to as the Carolina Dog, or sometimes as the American Dingo or Dixie Dingo as well. They are believed to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge with man more than 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age and to share a common ancestor with the Australian Dingo.
Like the Marsh Tacky, these dogs have a long history of running feral throughout the rural lowlands and the Lowcountry. And, like the Marsh Tacky, the Carolina Dog has been studied extensively, with a few breeders carefully preserving and controlling the pureness of the breed. Two unique aspects of the Carolina Dog are ones that other wild canines exhibit: the female regurgitates already ingested food for her pups, and males tend to remain with females after a litter is born.
They are very clean, often burying or hiding their feces, and they also inexplicably dig “snout pits,” small, funnel-shaped holes that possibly are the result of the dog seeking to extract nutrients from the soil. Carolina Dogs are also known for their deep, soulful eye contact with people.
Usually a yellowish color with lighter markings underneath, Carolina Dogs have long, erect ears with a tail that curves up in a fishhook. Most are between 35 and 50 pounds. Although the breed is recognized by the American Rare Breed Association and by the United Kennel Club, it has yet to be recognized by the American Kennel Club. The AKC requires a closed studbook, so any dogs bred from wild Carolina Dogs after the studbook is closed (which means not adding to the breeding stock) would no longer be considered part of the breed, even with a DNA test. Advocates of the breed thus fear that registering them with the AKC could limit the breed and expose them to the risks of inbreeding.
Don Anderson of Bishopville owns three Carolina Dogs. He says they are ideal dogs as companions while he is out working on his 1,500 acre tree farm. “I have them as pets and use them as working watch dogs — they are the best of watch dogs,” says Don, who is part Cherokee. He has heard that Southern Native Americans had Carolina Dogs for the same reasons. In fact, archeological studies have shown that Native Americans ritually buried their Carolina Dogs with traditional decorations befitting a beloved member of their community.
“What I like about Carolina dogs is their affectionate nature and their regal demeanor,” he shares.
Although these three breeds may be most prevalent in South Carolina, they are now piquing interest all over the Southeast and even throughout the United States. However, they are breeds that South Carolinians can continue to call their own.