Eastern Kentucky is still littered with dead horses. How one farm is recovering from a massacre
You really can’t blame Diamond for stepping off the trailer with caution.
The journey to the Kentucky Humane Society’s farm in Simpsonville wasn’t an easy one.
The wild horse waited in the trailer for hours as rescuers tried to lure what was left of her herd from atop a reclaimed coal mine in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.
Then a single gunshot fired, and the herd scattered.
That bang — the same sound that killed 20 other free-roaming horses like her weeks before — meant she’d be making the journey to safety alone and leaving three other survivors from the attack behind.
Today that slice of coal country is still littered with horse carcasses. It’s so remote there’s not even a company or an expert animal advocates could pay to remove them.
Diamond’s herd in Floyd County gained national attention in December when 20 of them were shot and killed. The urgency to rescue survivors has increased as no arrests have been made in connection to the shooting, and harsh weatherhas made returning to the shooting site difficult, prolonging the process.
The killer is still out there, and animal advocates are desperate to get the survivors off the mountain. There is a $23,000 reward for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter.
For years herds of free-roaming horses have called the former coalfields and flattened mountaintops of Eastern Kentucky home.
It’s a stunning free population, but it’s also a troublesome one.
The horses put drivers in danger when they wander into the winding, narrow, blacktop mountain roads to lick the salt from the streets during freezing temperatures. The herds cause damage to the reclaimed mines, and in turn, expenses that coal companies must pay to repair. They’ll graze down to the dirt, which means the grass needs time to grow and resources to be reseeded. They siphon off natural resources from the elk that are supposed to live there.
Some horses that roam free have owners tucked away in homes that rest on the hillsides or in valleys, but others have been abandoned or born wild. The population of unwanted horses in Kentucky increased during the Great Recession and with each breeding season, the herd and the difficulties that come with it grow.
Shooters are just one danger the herd faces.
It’s also plagued with illness, undernourishment and starvation.
Soon Diamond would discover that at the rehabilitation farm in Simpsonville, she had food, shelter and security.
More than three hours of rural Kentucky roads and highways later, the horses arrived timid and unsure at Kentucky Humane Society’s Willow Hope Farm.
Humane Society workers had learned from a neighbor in the mountains that Hope, a horse they’d rescued a couple of weeks earlier, had mothered Diamond two years before. They opened the trailer just within an eyeshot of her.
She spotted Hope, and her tense features relaxed.
The crew did, too. The young horse was safe. Now it was time to prepare her for a true home.
Adjusting to farm life
The worst of it was over for Diamond. She survived at least two shooting attempts out in the hills, but now she had to learn how to thrive on a farm.
If Diamond truly was Hope’s foal, she’d have an easier go of it than a horse who’s feral lineage goes back generations.
By all evidence, Hope had lived among people before and while Diamond was wild, she’d been raised by a mother who wasn’t.
When Hope was rescued and arrived at the farm just after Christmas, she already knew the basics of farm life.
She came off the trailer and into the stall as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She spotted the bucket and immediately ducked her head in for a drink. The foal she had with her, a rascally black foal named Knox, followed his mother’s lead. She didn’t fuss when workers came up to her or her son.
“We started touching him, and Hope was like, ‘oh OK,’ and he became the boy that he is now, and he has a great personality,” said Shara Wiesenauer, the Humane Society’s equine director.
A feral horse never would have tolerated that.
Two weeks after her rescue, Diamond still didn’t approach humans. The veterinarian guessed she was about 2 years old, but without being able to check her teeth, there was no way to know.
She had to learn to drink out of a bucket and take grain from a bin.
She’d never seen a bridle, let alone, allowed a human to climb on her back, take the reins attached to it and ride.
It would take a minimum of six months to rehabilitate her, said Lori Redmon, the president and CEO of the Kentucky Humane Society. By the time she finishes training, she’ll be just as good and even more resilient than an animal that had come from a horse farm, Redmon said.
She had her youth working in her favor, but there’s a grit that comes with running those mountains.
If they can survive that, they can survive anything.
“In general, they don’t spook at things,” Redmon said of rescued wild horses. “They make really steady horses, and they don’t tend to be reactive.”
Finding a footing for horses in Frankfort
Without a formal count, it’s impossible to know how many horses like Diamond, Hope and Knox roam freely on Eastern Kentucky’s strip mines.
Redmon says she’s seen as many as 500 with her own eyes, but guesses there are a few thousand in total. Ten Kentucky counties have horses roaming on former coal mines, including Floyd County where part of Diamond’s herd was killed, and there are several sites in each county.
In the weeks that have followed the shooting, Redmon has taken a three-phase approach to help the free-roaming horses like Diamond in Eastern Kentucky.
She’s worked closely with Tonya Conn at Dumas Rescue in Floyd County to ensure that any evidence was collected from the mountain so that authorities could track down who shot the horses.
Conn, too, is desperately trying to get a crew back up to the shooting site to rescue the three remaining horses, but the mountains have been unforgiving. It’s the kind of place that can only be accessed with all-terrain vehicles. Harsh rainy weather has kept them from returning to the mountain since the day they rescued Diamond.
Bringing those last survivors to safety ties up phase one for Redmon.
The second phase involves raising funds for a formal aerial count of horses roaming in Eastern Kentucky. Redmon began pushing for legislation to help in 2015, five mating seasons ago when the population was more manageable.
Without a formal count, it’s been difficult to capture attention in Frankfort.
It took the shooting in December to motivate state senators to introduce a resolution calling for the creation of an “Abandoned Horse Task Force.” The group will take an inventory of Kentucky’s abandoned horses and learn more about their condition.
Redmon saying she’s seen a few hundred horses hasn’t done much good at the state capitol, but she believes proving there are thousands will.
The third phase is passing legislation that provides a framework for handling the population. She wants laws in place that hold people accountable for dumping unwanted horses.
“My hope is that this horrible situation can have some sort of a positive outcome,” Redmon said. “We need to carry the torch to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other horses in the future.”
The shooting garnered national attention, so she’s optimistic the whole situation can finally gain some footing in Frankfort, too.
A second chance
On the other side of the farm, another rescue, Willow, struggled to stay interested in her walk around the arena.
The horse shook her head mildly and whipped her tail in frustration, but not in anger. It was the equine equivalent of stuttering over the words in a new language.
She was clearly trying even though the concept was completely foreign to her.
She didn’t have Diamond’s youth, but at 18 years old, she still had a good decade left in her. She’d been at Willow Hope Farm for almost four months, and was the resident poster child for what a rescue could become with the right training.
“She has excellent ground manners and excellent under saddle manners on the trail, anyone could ride her on a trail,” Wiesenauer said. “But some people would want to ride her in an arena as well, so that’s what we’re working on with her to help her understand that you don’t have to just fly when someone gets on you.”
It’s the kind of success that rescuers hope for Knox, Diamond, Hope and the other three survivors that still roam the mountain, too.
Like Hope, Willow had known the basics of farm life. She’d been rescued in October from starvation from the same Eastern Kentucky strip mine where the shooting happened in December.
She was an expert trail runner and she galloped with ease when she met that kind of terrain.
Willow just didn’t see the point in walking in circles.
The humane society had already listed her for adoption as a trail runner, but until they found the right home for her, they were going to teach her whatever skills they could.
She’s made substantial progress in the month or so that she’s been healthy enough to train at the farm.
The team saw past the sack of bones that she walked in as and instead saw what she could be.
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Those horses didn’t ask to be on that mountain. A reclaimed coal mine isn’t a natural habitat for a herd, and Willow, Knox, Diamond and Hope deserve more than the hunger than comes with that lifestyle.
They’ve got a chance at it on the farm.
And once the weather calms downs, and the rescue team can go back to the shooting site, hopefully, the three remaining horses on that mountain can have a second chance, too.
By Maggie Menderski
Louisville Courier Journal