From The Blog

Horse Racing Has Deep Roots on Kiawah

The Kiawah Cup Island Beach Race is just around the corner, coming to the island on Saturday, Oct. 29. The event, which is a partnership between the Kiawah Cares Foundation (KCF) and the Carolina Marsh Tacky Association(CMTA), features a thrilling Marsh Tacky horse race down Kiawah’s beach in front of the Sandcastle.

“Beach horse races are a thrilling, one-of-a-kind experience for spectators and riders alike,” said KICA Chief Operating Officer and KCF Board Chair Jimmy Bailey. “We’re excited to bring this unique event to Kiawah.”

The Kiawah Cup isn’t the first time horses have been on Kiawah. Horses were part of the Kiawah landscape for much of the 20th century. They featured in island recreation, beginning when Vanderhorst family members started a hunting club early in the century to generate revenue from the island, and ending in 1984 when the Kuwaiti-owned Kiawah Island Company(KIC) ceased sponsoring The Great Kiawah Horse Race. Bob Moore, former KIC marketing director, recalled that the original Kiawah marketing brochure pictured horses on the cover. “We were marketing the wild side of a newly developed island,” he said.

hen C.C. Royal purchased Kiawah from the Vanderhorsts in the 1950s, Kiawah sported a pack of free-roaming horses. Mark Permar, who with his wife Diana is Kiawah’s second longest-term resident, recalls that perhaps 12-15 horses were still roaming the island when he and Diana arrived in 1979.In the meantime, horse races on the beach near the Kiawah Island Inn had become a well-organized, highly anticipated social event. From the late 70s to the early 80s, quarter horses jockeyed by both professionals and amateurs competed annually in the Great Kiawah Island Horse Race, which featured several sprint races of 250-450 yards. In its final few years, a children’s race provided additional excitement.

Mark Permar reminisced about the social aspects as well as the excitement of race day: “Some people would dress up in unusual apparel, with big hats. It was impressive to be so close to the races in an idyllic setting with the backdrop of the beach, and to see those horses take off so incredibly fast for a short distance.”

In 1984, KIC decided to end the races. Their interest in Kiawah was waning and they would shortly begin trying to sell the island. The Great Kiawah Island Horse Race went the way of the hunting club and the “wild” horses. Now, 32 years later, horse races are coming back to Kiawah’s beach with the Kiawah Cup!

While the Great Kiawah Island Horse race featured American Quarter Horsies, Tackies have a history on Kiawah as well. Brothers Ed and Arthur Ravenel used to ride their tackies to Kiawah before it was developed, to tend family cattle grazing here. Cattle would wade into the surf to escape flies and biting bugs. The tackies would easily go chest deep to round them up.

The breed is no newcomer to beach racing, either. In recent years, CMTA has held races on Hilton Head Island and is excited to partner with KCF on Kiawah. The Marsh Tacky is a unique strain of Colonial Spanish Horse dating back to the1500s. The breed is found only in South Carolina and is one of the most endangered horse breeds in the world. Once they roamed freely by the hundreds through the South Carolina Sea Islands and Lowcountry, but their numbers neared extinction as tractors, trucks, and development took the place of horsepower.

Today, there are less than 400 Marsh Tackies left. In 2007, the 501(c)3 CMTA was formed to preserve and promote the breed. Horse owners and enthusiasts are diligently working to save the breed from extinction. DNA tests have been performed on the remaining horses and a breed registry has been developed by the Livestock Conservancy. In honor of its long history in the state, the Marsh Tacky was named the South Carolina State Heritage Horse in 2010.

To learn more about this resilient little horse, visit the CMTA online at To see a Marsh Tacky race in action, check out this exciting video from 2011 in Hilton Head, SC at