LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For years it's been a common, if often unauthorized, practice in the coalfields of Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains — grazing horses on reclaimed surface mines.
But state animal welfare groups say the recession and increased wild breeding since 2009 have expanded the free-roaming population of horses into what some estimate to be thousands — and the mix of owned, abandoned and wild-born horses is causing growing concern.
Untended horses have faced illness or malnourishment, particularly during winter. And local officials say they're wandering into some populated areas, causing traffic hazards and damage to crops and houses. Herds of horses also have required some mine owners to undergo expensive replanting of federally mandated land reclamation.
"It's a major problem," said David Ledford, a biologist and president of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, who has worked with coal companies in restoring land and wildlife to surface mining areas.
The Kentucky Humane Society this spring will launch a series of free gelding or castration clinics in hopes of keeping the population of free-roaming Appalachian herds in check. It also is recruiting a network of foster barns and partner organizations for adoptions of unwanted or endangered horses.
A horse in Knott County, Ky., is rounded up after leaving a mine reclamation site and being found on roadways. (Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Humane Society)
"We need at least to stop the growth. If we don't, we're going to get a totally unmanageable population," said Ginny Grulke, a representative of the nonprofit Kentucky Horse Council, which is also working on the issue.
Grulke's group is backing a bill introduced last week by Democratic state Rep. Tom McKee that would reduce the time required to hold a stray horse before it can be adopted from 90 to 10 days, meant to encourage cash-strapped rural Kentucky counties to take in more stray horses.
In Knott County, for example, Judge-Executive Zachary Weinberg said the increased public safety and horse welfare problems often "fall on the county. And we're supposed to keep them for 90 days, but we don't have the budget."
It's not known exactly how many horses there are on reclaimed surface mine sites, which range in size from a few acres to thousands of acres. Many are owned or leased by mining companies.
During inventories last year, Humane Society President Lori Redmon said her group counted nearly 440 free-roaming horses in several southeast Kentucky counties but that foraging and other patterns suggested the number was three times as many. One herd contained 112 horses, and a third of them were foals, she said.
"I'd say within a five-county area, we're talking thousands," she said, noting that while the group is seeking funding to conduct a more accurate aerial count, the population is already known to be unsustainable, with too many horses pregnant, sick, malnourished or causing problems.
The practice of grazing horses on what some refer to as "strip jobs" — former coal mines, some flattened by mountaintop removal — has gone on for years in a mountainous area where homes can cling to hillsides or sit in narrow valleys, Ledford said.
Horses on a reclaimed surface mine site in Perry County, Ky. (Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Humane Society)
Krinda Bailey of Martin said her father, who has since passed away, was part of a group of owners who took horses to reclaimed sites in Breathitt County in the early 1990s, regularly visiting, feeding and caring for them "before the overpopulation they have now."
"They had what they called the 'Gentleman's Rule,'" she said. "If you had a stud ... you either went and got your horse off the strip job, or you took it to the vet and got it cut."
Some land or mine owners didn't mind when there were fewer horses grazing; others were never asked permission, said Tonya Conn, who runs Dumas Rescue in Floyd County, Ky., which works with stray horses.
“Winter last year was horrible. In some areas, grazing was non-existent. So you had horses coming off in droves, walking into roadways and getting hit and killed. Horses were starving; they're coming into rural areas and destroying yards, eating paint off of cars because of the road-salt that was on them.”
Tonya Conn of Dumas Rescue, which works with stray horses
According to the Kentucky Humane Society, it started becoming a bigger problem after the recession began in 2008, which led to more horses being left unattended or dumped on the reclaimed sites. As wild breeding increased, so did the population — and the problems, which went beyond added costs to coal companies.
"Winter last year was horrible. In some areas, grazing was non-existent. So you had horses coming off in droves, walking into roadways and getting hit and killed," Conn said. "Horses were starving; they're coming into rural areas and destroying yards, eating paint off of cars" because of the road-salt that was on them.
Grulke doesn't expect the use of reclaimed sites to go away but said efforts will target rescuing horses in danger and eventually stabilizing or reducing the population.
"There's no wholesale roundup planned, that's just not feasible. There aren't enough homes or funding. The approach will be simply to take care of ones that do come down off a mountain and cause a public hazard, or are obviously starving or diseased," Grulke said.
Focusing at first on a handful of counties including Knott, Floyd and Breathitt this spring, the Kentucky Humane Society will offer services such as vaccines and gelding to owned horses. Officials hope owners will bring horses down from old surface mine sites for care and that wild horses coming into contact with humans can be gelded and adopted.
Among the challenges will be identifying which horses are not owned, which Redmon estimates to be about half the population. Grulke said she wants to ensure that owners are notified before adoptions are made through public announcements and an online effort.
Another challenge will be finding enough people willing to adopt a horse, which would average $3,000 a year. Feral or horses born wild to domesticated horses, unaccustomed to humans, are typically more difficult to place, Redmon said.
"I think there's starting to become a cultural shift, because people are realizing it's becoming unsustainable," said Justine Saudan, director of strategic initiatives for the Humane Society.
Kenning also reports for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal