Free-Roaming Horses in Eastern Kentucky

There is a population of free-roaming horses in the Appalachian region of Kentucky that is unknown to most horse lovers. The land is heavily forested and mountainous, so pasture land for horses is very limited. Coal reclamation sites (land that is re-seeded after mining is completed) provide ideal pasture land and have become an unofficial grazing area for local horses.

These are domestic horses, not wild ones, which have been turned out to survive on their own. Many are approachable, friendly horses that are easy to handle; some are owned and collected periodically for riding purposes. Meaning, that owners will pick up their horses at the start of the summer months for trail riding and return them to a mountain site to fend for themselves in the winter. Other horses have been abandoned by owners who have no intention of reclaiming them. With stallions turned out on these sites, mares are giving birth to foals who grow into feral horses that have never been handled by humans, and ownership of these horses is questionable.

The winter months pose the most difficulty for these horses trying to survive on their own. Many herds descend from the mountain tops when grass is scarce and reside along the road where foraging is better and they can lick the salt from the roads. The horses pose a public safety risk for drivers as well as themselves. Horses have been reported chewing siding off of homes, licking salt off cars and causing traffic accidents.

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How This Started

Certain areas of Appalachia have always struggled with poverty, and economic challenges have made the problem worse. In addition, word of these unofficial grazing sites spread beyond local residents, and people started coming from farther away to dump horses in eastern Kentucky. More and more people were indiscriminate and released stallions, along with mares and geldings, and the population began to grow at a rate that was not sustainable for the amount of forage available.

Many of the herds now contain stallions, and breeding has become prolific. Left unchecked, the horse population continues to grow, making a bad problem worse. In addition, these offspring do not receive the benefit of human contact and the herds are shifting from friendly to feral – making care, rescue or rehabilitation an increasingly difficult task.

Due to the growing population and lack of infrastructure to care for these herds, many of these horses are underweight and become emaciated during the winter months. A growing number of them are experiencing medical issues related to the lack of veterinary, farrier and dental care. Unattended, these problems can be life threatening.

The Problem

These sites encompass many acres of land across several counties in Eastern Kentucky. Despite the number of horses, several sites are often used for recreational ATV purposes and camping/party sites for locals. There is often litter scattered throughout the mountaintops.

Many of these horses are considered owned, making rescung the horses difficult. Before our team can remove a horse from the mountain, we must have signed permission from the local County Judge Executive, giving us permission to remove horses. This process can take several days.

Another problem that we face is accessing different horses across the mine sites. Many of the sites used to have active roads that are no longer maintained, meaning that access to horses in need can be difficult. Some routes are only accessible via an ATV, and a trailer cannot be safely brought up to a certain sites without posing a hazard to rescuers and the horses.

Though many horses are owned and friendly, we are also facing a new population of feral horses that are born on the mountain. These horses have never been handled by humans since birth and cannot safely be haltered and lead down the mountain. At times, feral horses have had to be caught using panels, a process that can take hours or even days.

The Kentucky Humane Society works closely with local rescues and law enforcement to assist horses who are suffering. With permission from local authorities, we take in free-roaming horses that are in danger and provide them with medical care and training so they can be adopted through our Equine C.A.R.E. program.

Hay and Salt Feeding

The winters can be harsh all over Kentucky, especially for those horses living in free-roaming herds where grass is scarce. The Kentucky Humane Society provides hay and salt drops on these sites in an effort to keep the horses off the roads and from casing public safety issues. If you would like to donate to the hay fund please go to Donate.

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