Unbridled: A story of Kentucky’s forgotten recreational horses

Aug 11, 2021 | Spotlight

By Jacob Dick

The drive into Breathitt County can take a while from the western side of Kentucky, or at least the scenery makes it feel that way. Driving on the Hal Rogers Parkway for 59 miles at an incline with wooded hills on either side has a way of distorting time. The same smattering of oaks, elms, and the occasional pine welcome drivers at a slight angle as they climb the hills into coal country.

The parkway drops to two lanes but there is a lot of road still ahead and not enough traffic to notice any stall in progress. There is a sense of isolation here that isn’t helped by the sight of houses connected to the main road by wooden walking bridges slung over a narrow river.

Rolling hills on the roadside slowly grow into sloping mountains that dominate the skyline in Breathitt County. Where crews of miners once blasted apart mountainsides, and dug into veins of coal with industrial machinery, there are now farms and communities. These man-made plains have been reclaimed by long grasses and shrubs since being stripped for coal due to the federal requirements for coal companies to restore a mine site before leaving for greener pastures.

Further into the hills, near some of the relatively younger strip sites, some new residents have made their home among the rocky outcrops and virgin grasses left by land reclamation. Breathitt County, along with other counties in Kentucky’s eastern coal fields, has seen an explosion in free-roaming horses abandoned on former mine sites since the 2008 recession that have been reclaimed with expanses of grassland meant to attract elk and other wildlife. On land, recently barren and inhabited only by machinery and coal loaders, horses can be found roaming in great number, to some of the mine companies’ dismay.

One of the most accessible places in Breathitt County to see the herds is an elk view built above the reclamation land for tourists near the end of Scenic Byway 1098. The byway is a graveled road connecting two small highways where sightseers can glimpse wildlife and fledgling fields of grass. Long expanses of grassland meant to attract elk and other wildlife to the nature overlook have apparently made the perfect place for horses to congregate.

On a mild spring day in Breathitt County, a procession of about 10 horses appear out of the woods on the right, walking the same direction up the road.

A heavily pregnant black mare stands on the yellow divider licking salt from the weathered asphalt. Cars pull up and people get out to take pictures or offer food. At least five more horses walk up from the tree line, all of them pregnant. A red mare with a chocolate mane saunters over to humans with cameras and waits for food. It obliges a few minutes of petting but then walks away looking for more food up the road.

The view from Breathitt County’s Elkview Overlook is a sprawling grassy field with young shrubs and trees dotting the land. There is a deep-blue pond with cattails peeking out that said was intentionally left by the coal company to provide water for the wildlife.

Today, there are no signs of elk nearby, but there are several horses standing near a thin tree pulling large tufts of yellow grass out of the ground. Frogs are chirping in the reeds below as the curious fields of yellow grass waves in the spring wind. These long stocks, beloved by elk and horses alike, are actually selected by coal companies for their ability to release nitrogen into the soil.

Coal companies with specific bonds on their mining sites have obligations to make sure the land has a certain amount of growth before they are free of responsibility for clean up after their operations are over. The horse’s ability to graze hundreds of acres of land until it’s completely stripped is making them annoying guests for the companies that hold the bonds.

Across seven counties in the east Kentucky hills, a mass of horses abandoned after the recession of 2008 has grown into free-roaming populations in the former sites of strip coal mining. Recreational horses across the state have faced similar issues of abandonment as owners face financial issues in caring for them, but in these unnatural plains in the Kentucky hills, the problem becomes more recognizable.

There isn’t a definite way to estimate how many horses are on coal lands in the seven affected counties without massive man power, but the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department has released statements saying it would not recognize the horses as wildlife, excluding them from management by the department. Volunteers and humane society veterinarians from across the Commonwealth have tried to do inventories on the population in the past, with varying results. Volunteers searched areas of the hills and took pictures to document each horse for their count, as well as marking whether they were pregnant. An estimate compiled and sent to experts in 2013 stated that 300 to 400 free-roaming horses were in Breathitt County.

An issue paper commissioned and released by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2014 connected the growing problem of horses on mine land to horse owner’s economic issues and the 2008 recession. The paper described the abandoned horses as feral herds exceeding over 1,000 animals in five counties and that reproduction had increased since a majority of the herds were foals.

Phil Prater, professor and interim chair of veterinary technology and agriculture science at Morehead State University, was one of the authors of the issue paper. He said calling the horses in eastern Kentucky “wild” doesn’t correctly describe the situation.

“A lot of people call them wild, but abandoned is probably more accurate,” Prater said. “There are some people who will turn out a horse in the winter, come back in the spring with a feed bucket and grab their horses again.”

While advocates for the horses said grazing the animals on the mine land is the perfect solution for unwanted horses, Prater said other parties should be considered as well. The Fish and Wildlife issue paper listed problems like malnourishment, traffic accidents, property damage and expensive replanting of coal reclamation land as resulting from untended herds.

“Ethically, there are some issues there,” Prater said. “Some of the strip mines are reclaimed for agriculture and beef cattle run on them. There are legal leases that the horses can get in the way of.”

Although a refuge in the hills may help the horses of eastern Kentucky, Prater said that the best solution for the state would have to come from horse owners being responsible and informed.

“Optimally, there needs to be some education,” Prater said. “There should be more state-wide gelding clinics in order to reduce population. These colts that you’re raising every year aren’t going to be American Pharoah.”

Prater admits there isn’t an immediate fix outside of euthanasia, and horses will probably continue to be abandoned in the meantime. In other parts of the state where there aren’t large swathes of land to release horses, some owners are trying their best to relocate their animals. Despite the disparity between distressed animals and service providers, there are still some success stories for horses in need.

When Laurie Davis and her husband Freddie lived on their farm in Madison County, Kentucky, she found herself taking care of their five horses due to her husband’s health. She said her husband deeply cared for their horses so she didn’t mind the work. No one rode the animals anymore, but Davis made the walk to their barn regularly to check on the young mare Lady, her husband’s horse Red, Jock the stud horse, her horse Ribbon and its foal Suprissa.

Davis now lives at her parents’ home in Berea after her husband passed away in May of 2015. She had to leave the farm after a dispute over the land and found herself in court with her husband’s family over the custody of the five horses. The horses were the only property she had from her husband besides a cowboy hat, but she was concerned with how she would afford the animals by herself.

“They would go through a roll of hay a week, which is about $300,” Davis said. “I tried to move them to my parents’ place, but it was just too small for them, and it was hard to keep them fed and pay the rent. That’s when I got in touch with the rescue group.”

Davis contacted the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville, Kentucky, to find a home for her horses. Karen Gustin, executive director of the center, said they have heard from thousands of owners like Davis since their founding in 2005, but have found themselves overwhelmed with horses since the economic downturn of 2008.

“We are usually at our capacity of 50 horses at all times, but sometimes we go over if absolutely necessary,” Gustin said. “We place about 120 horses a year but there are always more on the waiting list.”

Whenever Davis initially called the center, she was told there was only room for two of her horses. However, after Jock was castrated to meet the center’s requirements and further negotiation, four of Davis’s horses were transported to Nicholasville, and her husband’s horse, Red, was given to a close friend.

In Berea, Davis has been receiving updates on her horses over the last few months from their new homes. Ribbon and her foal, Suprissa, were adopted to different homes but Davis is happy that they, along with Jock, have found another family to take care of them. She said she recently saw her husband’s horse, Red, being ridden for the first time in a while. She thinks that Freddie would be glad to hear that.

“I saw a video of her training and I thought it was amazing to see how much she learned,” Davis said. “I think it would make him happy to know that his horse is a riding horse again. It gives her something to do other than standing around and looking pretty.”

In Davis’s instance, the five horses from Madison County found good homes in a relatively short time. Usually, finding assistance can be difficult after a large amount of horse owners who don’t qualify for agricultural assistance programs were strapped for cash during the 2008 recession and the private rescues dedicated to helping them were overwhelmed.

Bob Coleman, associate professor and horse extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, said the way horses are inventoried by the federal and state government can account for the difficulty of tracking horse populations and finding services.

“Horse owners are typically not farmers and many agricultural aid programs don’t include horses,” Coleman said. “The number of horses in Kentucky can be hard to track and it can be hard to tell what a horse will be listed as in an inventory, if it is at all.”

According to the 2012 Kentucky Equine Survey conducted by the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Horse Council and other partners, 46 percent of all horses in the state are recreational or idle animals. These are animals usually owned by non-farmers who depend on discretionary money and volunteer support services to care for their animals.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s definition of a farm requires that at least $1,000 of agricultural products be produced or sold each year, meaning the countless horse owners that keep animals on their residential property are left unaccounted. Those horses that are not considered farm animals would not qualify for government sponsored health and sterilization clinics from the USDA.

Coleman said a horse may be counted as livestock if it is a racing or breeding horse that makes income. However, a riding horse brought to market may not be counted if it isn’t registered or sold in a specific way.

This division between horses that hold value and horses that are pets can make a major impact in how horse owners recover from market problems. Coleman said he believes leisure horse owners aren’t fairing so well in this occasion due to the shrinking need of horses in the modern world being majorly reflected in the market after the recession.

“We probably won’t return to pre-2008 levels of ownership,” Coleman said.

Timothy Capps, director of the equine business program at the University of Louisville, agrees that leisure horse owners and markets are still feeling the effects of the recession.

“No question, there has been a significant downturn,” Capps said. “Most places in the world, horses are a recreational vehicle with people spending discretionary income. Recessions limit discretionary money.”

Capps’ research into the equine industry covers both national and international business. He said that, although the state thoroughbred industry took a hit in the recession as well, it seems to have already recovered.

“The thoroughbred industry held together better than most, and even gained market share with recent foal crops,” Capps said.

Capps said thoroughbred and other racing breeds did drop in market price after 2008, but farms sold off what they considered extra risk and limited their breeding to save money on overhead costs until markets restored. The amount of thoroughbreds being born in Kentucky, also known as foal crops, declined 35 percent after the recession. There was also a decline in the amount of transfer records showing a change in ownership of registered breeds.

“People declined their holdings but in most cases those people will come back when the market turns,” Capps said.

Meanwhile, registered horse shows, where the majority of leisure and riding breeds are bought and sold, saw a decline from 27,000 to 24,000 shows yearly.  The amount of horses bred have declined for those breeds as well, helping to boost the market price due to less availability of young horses, but Capps said this is still a buyers’ market.

Capps disagrees with Coleman’s prediction that horse ownership numbers will remain stunted in Kentucky compared to pre-2008 levels. He said he believes the attitude of horse owners almost guarantees the business will continue to be strong.

“This business is fueled by passion,” Capps said. “If they have been doing it for a while, they will find a way back in.”

While some owners might be waiting to breed and buy even more horses in the state, Capps estimates the amount of stalls in Kentucky for rescue and rehabilitation of horses has increased from 5,000 to 20,000 in seven years. People who specialize in providing for horses in need would say this expansion is too little, far too late.

Karen Thurman is the owner and operator of Rainhill Equine Facility in Warren County, Kentucky, 11 miles outside of Bowling Green. She receives horses from all across the east coast because of her specialty with blind horses. Thirty-four of her 54 horses are blind and she said there are always more to take in. She has become accustomed to, as she puts it, taking on the responsibilities of others.

“There are all different reasons for abandoning a horse,” Thurman said. “Occasionally, I get calls from farmers, but I also get horses from killer pens.”

She describes “killer pens” as areas in horse markets where old and disabled horses are basically bought by the pound in order to be slaughtered in Mexico or Canada. Horse slaughter in the United States ended in 2007 when the last three slaughter plants were closed after processing nearly 90,000 animals. Since then, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates at least 150,000 horses are shipped out of the U.S. for slaughter each year.

Thurman, who is used to seeing euthanasia first hand as the former director of a humane society, said she is critical of people who believe banning horse slaughter in the United States benefits horses.

“We still slaughter as much as we ever have,” Thurman said. “[Horses] just have to stand in a trailer for 12 hours before they die.”

She said the sheer number of horses in need are overwhelming rescue operations like hers around Kentucky and the rest of the country. Thurman suggested an experiment to show just how hard it could be to find a home in Kentucky for a horse in need. As a part of the experiment, equine rescue operations from internet searches and Facebook groups were contacted to see if they had room for a horse. This was easier said than done.

Seven of the 15 rescues that were contacted had phone numbers that were disconnected and websites that didn’t seem to exist anymore. Thurman predicted it might be hard to find rescues with their numbers actually listed or that were still open.

“I know that sometimes I get calls all day where I have to turn people away,” Thurman said. “Some facilities just disappear, as well. It takes a lot of money to take care of other people’s horses.”

One of the first places to answer was the KY Horse Rescue and Mustang Training Center in Tollesboro, Kentucky. They said the facility was at its limit but they would make exceptions for individual horses in an emergency. The Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville also said their 50 stalls were currently filled and they were usually over capacity. A facility in Georgetown called Old Friends appeared among an online list of horse rescues and they did respond back, but the facility only accepts purebred racing horses and stallions.

A retraining and rehabilitation network called New Vocations also answered but their farms in Laurelville, Ohio and Lexington were at capacity. The facility with farms in Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania doesn’t just accept any horse, as they retrain animals to have working skills in order to find them suitable homes. The Humane Society of Muhlenberg said they could take in a horse in an emergency, but that they didn’t have the capability to take in several or for an extended period of time.

A call was even made to the Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue in Shoals, West Virginia because of their activity across several different states, including Kentucky. Susanne Johnson, a spokesperson for Heart of Phoenix, said the facility was usually at capacity because of their work responding to rescue requests from the Department of Animal Control in West Virginia.

“If we do have an opening, it usually fills up within 10 hours,” Johnson said. “We do have some emergency spots for injured horses.”

True to Thurman’s prediction, none of the equine facilities contacted had space readily available for a horse in need of a home. She believes because of the attitude of Kentuckians and the high cost of disposal after euthanasia, horse owners decide to keep their horses and hope an opportunity comes along for a shelter. She gets rather heated and her New York accent flairs when she talks about the responsibility of horse owners.

“I’m 55 years old, I work two jobs… I have 54 horses and none of them are mine,” Thurman said. “You work for what you want. There is never a good reason to shove off your responsibility onto someone else.”

Philosophical questions about responsibility aside, horse owners in Kentucky were left with hard decisions to make about their priorities after 2008. When the money runs dry, should an owner scrape together what cash they can for hay until a rescue stall opens, pay to have their beloved animal put down or watch their horse starve while hoping for a buyer to come along?

For some owners in eastern Kentucky, another choice seemed to trump them all. They might not be able to take care of their horse on their own property, but with thousands of acres of open mine land to graze on, they could make sure their horses found food nearby.

Deeper in the former mine land only accessible by truck, there are even more horses spread among the fields in clustered groups as they graze. Their hair is slightly shaggy and some of their hooves look unkempt but the way they ignore the truck as it drives by suggests that these animals are used to humans. They don’t seem to flinch whenever approached and wander the hills in a group when one of them decides to move.

Donkeys and mules are also among some of the herds and, due to their more territorial and aggressive nature, help offer protection from coyotes in the area. There are several foals standing in the middle of a group of mares grazing in the unnatural field formed after strip mining.

Despite the conflicts of the human world, the horses making their home on the unnatural grasslands don’t seem to care that this place wasn’t made for them. Although it isn’t a solution for all recreational horse owners, the horses in Breathitt County have found a momentary reprieve among the flattened mountains and man-made grasslands of eastern Kentucky.

Share This