Horses have roamed free for decades on old surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but with unchecked breeding and owners apparently turning out more mares and stallions in recent years, the population has increased to the point of concern, according to animal-welfare advocates.
The horses can endanger themselves and drivers by wandering onto hilly roads, and face untreated health problems and potential food shortages in the winter.
“There’s a problem that is growing,” said Lori Redmon, head of the Kentucky Humane Society. “There are some sites that are currently not able to sustain the horse population.”
The horses roam on mined, unfenced areas in several counties, including Knott, Breathitt, Leslie, Martin, Magoffin, Perry, Floyd, Harlan and Bell.
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In surface mining, companies blast the tops or sides off mountains to uncover coal seams, then plant vegetation in reclaiming the sites. That has created tens of thousands of acres of relatively level land where horses can graze.
It’s not clear how many horses there are on mined sites in the state’s eastern coalfield.
David Ledford, head of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, said he’d heard an estimate of 3,000 to 5,000, but noted there have been no formal surveys.
People working with the Kentucky Humane Society saw more than 500 horses in five counties during a count in March 2014, according to its website.
Some of the horses have owners who see to their needs and collect them to ride. Some are tame and readily approach strangers.
In other cases, however, owners are taking advantage of free grazing, with no agreements to let their horses run on reclaimed land, animal advocates say.
Some of the horses were turned out by owners who could not afford to care for them or no longer wanted them. Many younger ones were born on the mines and have never been handled by humans.
Frank Clemons, a deputy sheriff in Breathitt County, said there is a misconception that all the horses on mined sites are abandoned.
Clemons said horses on a large reclaimed mine near his home have owners who take care of their animals and have agreements with landowners to let the horses roam the site, Clemons said.
“The horses back there are as fat as mine,” Clemons said.
It’s true that many of the free-roaming horses are healthy, but some suffer from malnutrition and untreated health problems.
Karen Gustin, head of the Kentucky Equine Humane Center in Jessamine County, estimated 30 percent of the horses she has seen on reclaimed mines don’t look to be in good shape.
And even some of the ones that look good could have damaging parasites, Gustin said.
The center cares for abandoned or surrendered horses and tries to find homes for them. It has taken in more than a dozen horses from Eastern Kentucky the last three years, Gustin said.
Gustin said some of the free-roaming horses are emaciated, and many lack vaccinations and proper care for their teeth and feet.
“They can be in horrible physical condition,” she said.
Many of the mined sites have adequate grass for the horses in the summer, and year-round in cases, but there are concerns about shortages in the winter at some sites.
Ledford said he recently saw 75 wild-looking horses at an old surface mine in Bell County, and the ground was almost bare of grass in spots.
Ledford said the horses have an impact on habitat for other species, and have caused problems at times by eating vegetation that coal companies are required to maintain on reclaimed surface mines in order to get back bond money.
One company had to re-seed a mine site in Leslie County six or seven times because horses kept grazing it so hard, said Ledford, who has worked with coal companies on reclamation projects.
“There’s been some serious reclamation problems pop up,” he said.
There also have been reports of the free-roaming horses being shot. And last month, Clemons, the Breathitt County deputy, arrested three men on charges of stealing four horses from a reclaimed mine.
The horses also create a safety threat. One reason is that they are starved for salt and wander onto roads to lick salt distributed for snow and ice removal.
These horses come out on the road and it’s a traffic hazard for the public.
Nelson Reynolds, chief of the Knott County Police Department
Nelson Reynolds, who is chief of the Knott County Police Department and also handles animal-control duties, said there have been several wrecks involving horses.
He had to shoot one horse that had been hit, and another police officer shot another one. In another case, a horse was hit on the road and injured, but escaped back into the hills where it apparently died the next winter, Reynolds said.
“These horses come out on the road and it’s a traffic hazard for the public,” he said.
Reynolds said free-range horses sometimes damage property other ways. In one case, a horse chewed siding from a house, he said.
People familiar with the issue said the population of free-roaming horses has increased in recent years.
One reason appears to be that owners turned out more horses after the recession hit in 2008 because they couldn’t afford to keep them.
“There was a lot of horses turned loose that couldn’t be taken care of,” said Dr. David Fugate, a veterinarian at West Liberty Veterinary Clinic.
Having more horses on the mines has meant more breeding as well.
Reynolds said it is against the law to allow large animals to roam unchecked. Horses can be picked up and put up for adoption after being held for a period.
The holding time used to be 90 days, which was a deterrent to picking up stray horses in cash-strapped rural counties because of the cost of caring for them.
State lawmakers this year reduced the required hold time to 15 days.
Several groups have worked to help deal with concerns over free-roaming horses.
The Kentucky Humane Society, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals teamed up to provide three clinics in Eastern Kentucky to geld stallions and provide health care for horses, such as vaccinations and de-worming.
The Kentucky Horse Council provided funding for the clinics. There are tentative plans for more clinics in 2016, said Katy Ross, executive director of the council.
The Kentucky Humane Society also has dropped hay and salt for horses on mines.
Several observers said more work is needed to try to curb the growing population of horses living on old mines in Eastern Kentucky.
“If the problem is to be resolved, law enforcement needs resources to enforce the law,” said Redmon of the Kentucky Humane Society.
Reynolds suggested requiring that a microchip be placed in horses when they’re sold. That would help get them back to rightful owners, and also would help officials identify owners who had abandoned horses, Reynolds said.
And Fugate, the West Liberty veterinarian, said there needs to be greater attention to controlling the state’s horse population, including rounding up stallions from surface mines and gelding them after proper public notice to let owners claim horses.
“It just takes one stallion to breed many, many mares,” Fugate said. “We need to have population management.”