Matthew's Miracle: Rare horses born after Hurricane Matthew's chaos

Matthew's Miracle: Rare horses born after Hurricane Matthew's chaos
Published: Feb. 12, 2018 at 9:58 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 13, 2018 at 8:36 PM EST
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DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, SC (WTOC) - Hurricane Matthew is now part of Savannah and the Lowcountry's stormy past. However, it's also part of a very significant future.

When that storm began tearing up the homes and landscape of our unique and historic cities and island communities, it was also doing something only Mother Nature can; creating new life. In this case, new life Daufuskie Island hasn't seen in half a century.

The flooding and destruction expected from Hurricane Matthew would not be an experience for the faint of heart. That was the warning for inland residents. Those on the islands would certainly not need to be told twice to leave.

Mike Clemons was one of the youngest to ride out the storm on Daufuskie Island. He says it was like the loudest and longest freight train he's ever heard.

"It looked to me like there were seven or eight tornados that took place or twisters of some sort in pockets of the place," Clemons said.

Daufuskie cleaned up pretty quick, but the paths of those "touch-and-go" twisters will be a reminder of what the island survived. In fact, Matthew's signature is still written all over the island and will take years, if not decades, to erase.

Despite the pleadings of then Governor Nikki Haley to completely evacuate Daufuskie Island, about 100 people chose to stay and ride out the storm, protecting their property and something much more precious than board and brick. You see, there are about 20 very rare Marsh Tacky horses on Daufuskie Island, and the decision was made to gather them and corral them to ride out the storm. That decision quickly turned Hurricane Matthew from a menace into a miracle.

The Marsh Tacky used to roam the woods, swamps, and corrals of Daufuskie by the dozen until developers decided the island was better suited for houses instead of hooves.

Erica Veit and her husband Tony were never convinced, and nearly three years ago, started the Marsh Tacky Society with just three horses: two mares and a stallion - descendants of a Spanish breed brought to the Lowcountry in the 1500's as the workhorse of the builder, the farmer, the soldier. At one time, from Charleston Harbor to the Florida line, wild Marsh Tacky's numbered in the thousands, their survival dependent on their fearlessness of the swamps and wetlands of the Lowcountry. Those days are long gone.

"Compared to other types of colonial Spanish horses that can be found, like the Florida Cracker Horse for example, or the Corolla Banker Horse in North Carolina, or even the Chincoteague Ponies in Virginia, the Carolina Marsh Tacky is critically endangered," said Marsh Tacky Society Co-Founder, Erica Veit.

There are fewer than 400 left on the planet, and they are already extinct in their native Spain.

"We are the only non-profit that exists that has the horse in the context of its native habitat," Veit said.

It has been more than 40 years since a Marsh Tacky has been born in its native habitat as well, which takes us back to the night of Hurricane Matthew and that menace of a storm creating the miracle of life.

Not only did the horses survive the storm unscathed. One 18-month-old stud named Lucero truly took advantage of his limited time with mares Reina and Carolina Moon. Erica says the results were not at all expected.

"When the vet came that following spring to do their check-ups, she provided us with the information to confirm that we would have two babies."

Estelita is now just three months old. Again, she is the first Marsh Tacky born on Daufuskie in half a century. She is her father through and through - bright, active, and a real diva.

Veit sees the births as the biggest impact of the storm.

"They are kinda like a silver lining to the storm. They're sort of a symbol, I think as far as the community is concerned, of perseverance."

Six days later, Carolina Moon gave birth to Mateo, "Matthew" for obvious reasons. He's ornery, very social, and ready to run with or without mom.

It's hard to believe that 500 years ago, these horses were shipped to the New World in the bottom of galleons, considered to be expendable. They were the smallest, runtiest horses that could survive on the smallest rations. "Tacky" is slang for "common."

"They adapted to our muggy, buggy, swampy hot climate, and for that reason, they are prized," Veit said.

By the mid-1700's, the Marsh Tacky became General Francis Marion's workhorse, helping him run the British out of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. That same runt is now South Carolina's official state heritage horse.

Veit insists they can do just about anything.

"These horses are so prized because they are so versatile, you know, meaning that they adapted to really any discipline that you put them into. Hunting? Absolutely. They can pull a cart and you can shoot guns off of them."

Now, thanks to a storm called Matthew, Daufuskie Island is once again being "broken in" to the sounds of lighter hooves and higher pitched whinnies, as the Marsh Tacky resumes its rightful place in the Lowcountry.

Erica and Tony Veit have now made it their mission in life to protect the critically endangered Marsh Tacky through breeding, training, and sales with their non-profit.

The next time you're on the Island, ask a local about Estelita and Mateo. You'll see the pride in their faces right before they volunteer directions to the stables.

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