Appalachian horses roam free in E. Kentucky

Among abandoned coal mines in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, horses roam free in horse heaven thanks to a group of volunteers.

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Appalachian Horse Project

A Historical Practice

People in the Appalachian Mountains of East Kentucky have been free-roaming horses and cattle for at least 30 years. In these steep mountains, flat land has always been hard to find. People have built their homes on the sides of mountains in order to avoid the flooding that often occurred in the valleys. Over time, dams were built, which alleviated some of the flooding.

The Role of Coal

In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, regulations were put in place that required coal mines to follow certain practices to “reclaim” the land that had been mined. These regulations have resulted in creating large parcels of flat land and rolling hills, covered in a variety of grasses. This land has for years provided ample pastureland for free roaming horses, as well as great habitat for the reintroduction of elk. Deer, songbirds, turkeys, bear, and other animals have also thrived and are growing in population.

Where the Horses are Found

There are primarily nine counties in East Kentucky where free-roaming horses may be found. They are Breathitt, Knott, Perry, Magoffin, Martin, Floyd, Pike, Leslie, and Harlan counties, with a few wandering over into Clay and Letcher counties. Since 2014, a group of volunteers have been photo documenting most of these herds, and have thus far inventoried just over 500 horses roaming free within the 9-county region.

At first glance, many would think these horses are wild, but step out of your vehicle and you will most likely find a number of these horses meandering right up to you. That is because, in many cases, these horses are owned or have contact with people who come up to watch the herds and bring them hay and other treats such as apples, corn, and bread.

Solutions to Growing Horse Population

There are active groups working to reestablish the equilibrium in the area. ASPCA, in partnership with the Kentucky Humane Society and other rescue groups, have sponsored wellness and gelding clinics in the region to decrease the number of stallions. Local horse owners are getting involved as well to ensure none of their stallions are allowed to roam free, which in turn, should slow the growing population.

The Appalachian Horse Project (AHP) is working in the 9-county region to turn the free-roaming horses into assets for the communities and enable East Kentucky to capitalize on the fact that Kentucky is the Horse Capital of the World.

Part of AHP’s mission is to retrain some of the horses for programs such as therapeutic riding or wounded warrior, offer free-roaming horse tours, and to help encourage adventure tourism activities, including trail rides.

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Featured Image: Photo: Kayla Caudill.

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2 thoughts on “Appalachian horses roam free in E. Kentucky”

  1. So while this makes it sound almost, nice. The reality is, in eastern KY and southern WV it’s not that pretty. Most of the horses, fair poorly, the grasses are not always nutritious for the horses, my experience doing rescue in southern WV for many years, working with local LE agencies, the majority are turned out during winter, because they don’t want to feed the horses. Very little water exists on the strip jobs and the land is owned by one of 4 land companies. The largest being Pocahontas Land, owned by Norfolk & Southern Railroad.

    I’ve been on those mountains in McDowell and Mingo counties trying to catch and rescue starving and injured horses. Areas accessible only by 4 wheelers or horse back. I’ve seen the skeletons of dead horses which didn’t survive over the winter. Time to hay horses, they’re dumped on the mountains, and spring time comes, they might go look for them, or they just pick up a new horse. The cycle continues. Have an injured horse, too lazy to even use a bullet, won’t call a vet, load it up into a truck and take it to the mountain and turn it loose.

    The horses often come down into peoples yards looking for food and water. I’ve rescued horses where the only source of real food was brought to them by locals, bringing feed, hay and water to them. 3000.00 horse, shoes pulled and dumped on reclaimed strip site. No water anywhere, scrub grass to eat. Wild horses may be adapted to eating scrub, but not domesticated. Horse was winning shows all over locally and then dumped. In southern WV, I never saw cattle, only horses.

    That’s the reality.


    1. The solution…. get local governments to start enforcing abandonment and neglect charges. Start letting the locals know, if they dump horses, starve them, neglect them they will be charged, prosecuted and sentenced to the fullest extent allowed under law.


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