I've been thinking about South Carolina a lot lately, as I imagine many of you have because of the terrible storms that have raked it recently. As the setting for my Civil War books, it has become something of a second home for me, and I frequently find myself defending it for its unique qualities -- not just climate, and glorious antebellum mansions and great seafood, but also its fondness for nature and its animal inhabitants. Does any other state have both a state horse and a state dog? And if so, are they both unique and small breeds?
I learned for the first time in March of this year that South Carolina is one of only 14 states to have its very own breed of horse -- The Carolina Marsh Tacky. [Tacky, by the way, is the Gullah word for horse.] This rare breed, descended from the mounts of the 16th-century Spanish explorers, was once thought to be extinct. It is still an endangered breed with less than 100 breeding mares in existence. I can only hope that the small herd of wild marsh ponies has managed to survive the recent storms.
The animals were popular in South Carolina because of their ability to traverse the marshy ground of the Lowcountry. Francis Marion ("The Swamp Fox") used them in the Revolutionary War, and after the Civil War they became the favorite horse of the Gullah population of South Carolina because they were small (around 14 hands), cheap, easy to feed, and strong enough to handle the farm work of the Lowcountry. Their numbers decreased in the 20th century because they were no longer needed as plow animals. The had something of a resurgence, however, in World War II, when they were used for beach patrols against Nazi invasion. Today, efforts are underway to restore the breed, and it became the State Horse of South Carolina in 2010.
Every year I get my basic "dog fix" by watching the Westminster Show. And in 2011, I discovered a new favorite. One of the six new breeds admitted to the show for the first time was the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of the State of South Carolina. The Boykin is a small dog (about 40 pounds, max.) and 15 to 18 inches high. It is bred to be a hunter and agile enough to jump in and out of small swamp boats without upsetting the boat. Since most of my books are set in the Low Country of South Carolina, I can understand the appeal of this energetic little dog.
I have no real hope that a Boykin will end up as "Best of Show." Newcomers seldom do. But while the breed is making its mark among usual favorites, I'll be cheering it on. If you're looking for me on a Monday or Tuesday night in February, you'll find me wrapped in something fleecy, glued to the TV, and rooting for aSouth Carolina breed that produces the the cutest pups I've seen in a long time.