Eastern KY – an Adventure with Horses
By Jill Saudan
Free-roaming horses thundering across an open plain, galloping down a steep ravine, disappearing into the woods, tails held aloft, manes flying–something every equestrian gets to see, right? Well, no. We see them in the movies, on the covers of magazines and books, on television, but actually seeing them with your own eyes is an experience not too many people can take off their bucket list.
My adventure started when my daughter, Justine, who is the Equine Initiatives Director at the Kentucky Humane Society, asked me to accompany her to Eastern Kentucky to help with the Mobile Gelding & Wellness Clinics KHS was holding. While their primary goals were to work towards controlling the equine population in Kentucky and to keep horses healthy by giving yearly vaccinations (Flu, Rhino, Rabies, 3-Way) Coggins Testing (for Equine Infectious Anemia) and checking their teeth and feet for vet and farrier follow up, they also were interested in observing the roaming horses out on the strip mines.
Accordingly, the agenda on our first day out turned out to be locating these herds. Like most Californians, I have heard of strip mining and knew about the practice of turning horses out to forage on the summer grass and, hopefully, bringing them back down for the winter. Carl, one of the locals, loaded us into his big pickup and, sometimes using four-wheel drive, drove us…up and up… until we located the first herd of horses. This large group was curious and friendly, especially as one of the trucks following us had a bed filled with not only hay but 50lb salt blocks.
Now, every equestrian worth their salt knows horses need this stuff, but I had never observed horses deprived of it. They clustered around the blocks in groups, pushing and kicking to get their share. They licked it, chewed on it and made dreadful faces at other horses who got in their way. The herd comprised of mares, yearlings, and lot of very cute foals. Then back in the truck and off to find the next herd, bouncing across rough terrain, eventually finding more horses. This group was less friendly and more skittish, sometimes galloping towards us in little groups. A large chestnut mare was clearly boss mare; she made that obvious by her body language and the eye she kept on our human group. Again the salt blocks were received with great enthusiasm, the horses diving, jostling and crowding around to get their share. We finally left this group and tracked another herd, but except for flying manes and tails, we were not able to get a good look at them and, unfortunately, not able to leave hay and salt in an area they could find them. We did not identify any stallions, at least up close.
Jennifer, another local person, took us to find herds in the afternoon. After driving along very rough fire roads, we finally located a small and super friendly herd. They enjoyed being touched as well as the gift of hay and grain and seemed sad to see us go. Not so much the second herd on this strip mine; it was a large group and very elusive. We tried the salt approach, but the lead horses, two mares and a chestnut mule with four white stockings had no interest in making our acquaintance. Justine walked a long way around to see if she could turn them back towards us, but the mule stood apart from the herd, his eyes glued on her, challenging her to come any further. Her quiet, slow retreat seemed to please him. Then they took off, streaming across the horizon in that classic formation we all know so well. It was such a thrill to see with your own eyes.
The second day was spent castrating stallions and performing wellness checks. Justine had divided veterinarians and volunteers into three teams consisting of a veterinarian, veterinary tech and at least two helpers. Each team had a pre-arranged group of stallions at the owners’ barns to castrate over the course of the day. The trick, I soon discovered, was finding them as maps, GPS and other tracking devices don’t work so well in the “hollers.” We finally managed to find the first location and our group’s vet, Dr. Marty Whitehouse, very efficiently castrated the first horse, a very sweet paint stallion. It was clear from the way she laid it down and, safely, cleanly and adroitly performed the surgery, that she was a pro at this! Fortunately, one of the family members of the second group took pity on us and led us—down and down and up and up, it seemed to me—to the place where the next two stallions were castrated. It was raining lightly and the surgery was done in two small barns with a good portion of the family watching! The local people, while a little hesitant at first, were friendly and helpful.
Our final stallion of the day was a beautiful palomino Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse. He peered over the stall door and watched the setup for his surgery, his intelligent face alive with curiosity and interest. He was funny to the end—when he came out of the anesthetic, still lying down he reached out and grabbed a mouthful of grass, ever the opportunist!
All in all it was an amazing experience, both from the standpoint of seeing the roaming horses to watching the vets perform their work. While much remains to be done, the Kentucky Humane Society is committed to making lives for horses who live—in any circumstances—in Kentucky, safer, healthier and more predictable.