When traveling southeast of Lexington, Ky., large farms filled with sleek Thoroughbreds give way to smaller farms and gaited horses, then finally to mountains with horses kept in small lots behind tiny homes clinging to the mountainside. A little farther east and you're in the Appalachian region of the state, which comprises 54 of Kentucky's 120 counties. It's not unusual to see herds of horses roaming free, nibbling grass beside the roads and grazing on wide swaths of cleared land.
The question is: How did these horses get here? Seemingly unafraid of people and with most appearing to be in relatively good health, the horses look far from feral. But as they run in herds upward of 120 horses, overpopulation will soon become an issue. The vast pastures on which these horses graze are actually reclaimed coal mines, and they're required by law to be restored back to a natural or economically viable state as a way of reducing the environmental impact of mining.
How did we get here?
Unemployment is endemic in Eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian Regional Commission stated in its 2007-2011 report that poverty rates across the U.S. were 14.3 percent, while the poverty rate in the Appalachian region of Kentucky was 24.8 percent (the rest of the state of Kentucky was at 18.1 percent).
Those who are employed still make significantly less money than the rest of the state. In Kentucky, the per capita income of the Appalachian region was $26,830 (the rest of the U.S. , for the same time frame, was $39,973).
This hardscrabble life does not lend itself well to proper care, of human or equine. Poverty is the primary reason for children being placed in foster homes. Coupled with unemployment, it's quite easy for a parent to be accused of neglect if they don't have things like a working refrigerator or the use of a car to get a child to a doctor's appointment. In real-life situations such as these, if the choice presented is to put food on the table for their family or feed their animals, the answer is clear: the humans eat.
In an effort to prevent their horses from starving, many owners have turned them out onto the coal lands, said Lori Redmon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Humane Society (KHS). As generations of Eastern Kentuckians have toiled in the mines, many of them in unsafe conditions, some feel it's their due to graze their horses on the lands on which they and their families have worked so hard.
“The reclamation sites have historically provided plenty of forage for pregnant mares during gestation, opportunities for young horses to exercise and grow until it's time for saddle training, as well as a spot to retire aged horses that are no longer ridden,” said Redmon.
It's easy to wonder why these families, who are so strapped for cash, own horses at all? The simple answer is: Because they always have. Generations of families were born, raised and died in the hills and hollows of Eastern Kentucky. Theirs is a way of life many wouldn't understand today, but it's steeped in tradition and history, and horses play a huge role in their culture. Generations of families have had horses, some of the same bloodline, and it's a point of pride for them.
“Just because these horses are free-roaming does not mean they are not monitored, and in some cases, provided supplemental feed or salt. Horses typically stay in the same general area where they were dropped off and there are typically a handful of local residents who keep tabs on horses coming and going,” said Redmon. “They will typically investigate if see an unfamiliar vehicle or horse trailer out on the mine site, and any attempt to remove horses without permission is considered left in their eyes.”
For the last 20 years, the turning out of horses on these lands in the summer was routine, said Redmon. They were then brought home in the winter and fed supplemental hay. Initially, there were not enough horses on the vast coal lands to pose a threat to residents or motorists. A “gentleman's agreement” among citizens meant that only geldings and mares were allowed to graze together to prevent unwanted breedings, she said.
In 2008, the recession hit the already-downtrodden region especially hard, and horse owners began improvising.
In an effort to give the horses a chance to survive, owners turned them out by the hundreds onto the grassy coal lands, but few were gathered in the fall for supplemental feeding. Not only did this increase grazing stress on the lands, overpopulation became an issue as stallions were turned out with mares and people began to travel from further away to dump their horses on the mine lands.
Redmon told USA Today earlier this year that the number of feral horses in the region has now swelled into the thousands. While local owners know which horses are theirs, they still have no way to care for them, so they must leave them to fend for themselves the majority of the time. Some horses are truly abandoned and in need of care, according to Redmon.
Foals born on the land are now feral from lack of human contact; horses have become emaciated from lack of feed. Many have health and medical issues that have gone untreated and rehabilitation is nearly impossible.
As the horses get hungrier, they venture down from the forests and grazing lands into more urban areas, becoming a hazard to people by crossing roads and wandering yards, chewing siding off of houses and harming property.
“Close to one site is a mare with a BLM tattoo traveling with last year's foal, this year's foal and a mammoth jack mule. Every time I've visited the site, I see the same horses because they seem to reside just inches off a curvy, paved road,” said Redmon. “We actually had to get out of our truck and shoo the mule off the road; then we noticed in our rear view mirror that he was again in the road after we passed by.”
A Growing Problem
As the coal mines in Kentucky close, so does one of the main sources of employment in Appalachia. Some residents are able to sustain themselves on disability checks, while others search for ways to get by. Many county residents are distrustful of outsiders, which makes helping these horses more difficult.
The key to caring for them is to gain the trust of the local residents, said Redmon, ensuring them that Kentucky Humane and others mean no harm and do not want to change their way of life—they simply want to help the horses.
The Society's goal is to gradually reduce the number of free-roaming horses, a challenge since the majority of local horse owners do not want the horses completely removed from coal lands. KHS plans to work with owners to determine which horses are truly abandoned and in need of help, and to host gelding and wellness clinics, where owners can bring horses in for vaccinating, hoof care, teeth floating and Coggins and health certificate registrations at no cost.
Locally, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Nicholasville, Ky., has partnered with KHS and has three spots reserved for horses KHS takes in at any given time, said Redmon.
“While it's intended as an outlet for primarily Eastern Kentucky horses, those slots can be used by KHS for any horse in need in Kentucky,” she said.
The problem is a complex one, so the solutions will be, too. The humane workers won a victory when the state legislature passed a bill this spring to reduce the number of days counties must keep captured stray horses in custody before putting them up for adoption. The previous requirement was 90 days, which placed a significant financial drain on small animal control offices; the timeframe is now 15 days.
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