History of Free-Roaming Horses

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.

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The Role of Coal

For as long as people can remember, coal has been the major industry in East Kentucky.  Initially, all coal mines were underground mines.  But with new machinery and technology, it became cheaper and safer to use surface mining methods including contouring and mountaintop removal.

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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.

When mine companies apply for permits to mine, they must select a reclamation choice.  Pastureland tends to be one of the easiest and less expensive forms of reclamation and, in the end, has provided East Kentucky with flat property in which to build golf courses, shopping malls, large residential and commercial areas, airports, and industrial sites.

Ideal Pasture Land

Local residents, many of whom had limited flat land themselves, have also found this flat terrain ideal for pasturing their horses and cattle.  And, in many cases, the coal companies and private landowners have not cared.  People would put their livestock “out to pasture” in the spring and take them up in the Fall.  It was also an unspoken rule that no one allowed stallions to free-roam.

Hard Times

Unfortunately, with the downturn in the economy starting with the 2008 recession, the decline of the coal industry, and the increase in the numbers of stallions allowed to roam free, the number of horses living on the reclaimed property year-round began to increase.

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.

Increase in Number of Horses

In recent years, the number of free-roaming horses has increased primarily due to people turning out stallions and allowing them to roam free.  As nature will have it, these stallions impregnate the free-roaming mares, resulting in the birth of fillies, and colts which grow up to become stallions.

Conflicts and Concerns

With this growing population, there have been some conflicts. Horses like salt.  In east Kentucky, as in other places, road crews salt the roads, and in the winter horses come down to the road to lick the salt which can be hazardous to both equine and drivers. Anyone who leaves their vehicles too long may find the paint licked off, the bumpers and tires with bites out of them, or their side mirrors used as scratching posts.  And in areas where reclamation is taking place, which requires a certain amount of established vegetation before coal companies can get their bonds released, a herd of horses can do a lot of damage eating up all the young green sprouts in a very short time.

Unchecked, the growing population could become a real concern.

Solutions to Growing Horse Populations

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.

Ownership of the Horses

AHP also works with local horsemen to protect and manage the herds.  Even though the horses appear to have no owners, many of them are owned by someone.  But there are also some horses that have been permanently “put out to pasture”.  Unless you talk to one of the local horsemen, you cannot tell which is which just by sight.  Therefore, you can’t just go to East Kentucky and just pick up a horse.  That would be horse stealing, which is a federal offense.

Just as you recognize your own child and pets, or that of your neighbors, people in East Kentucky can easily identify their own horses and that of their neighbors, even though the horses may not be micro-chipped, branded, nor are they wearing any type of halter or identifying apparatus.

Herd Health

The majority of free-roaming horses appear to be very healthy.  In fact, free-roaming herds in East Kentucky appear to be doing better than some horses kept in stalls or in small, enclosed paddocks.  If one comes across a “skinny” free-roaming horse, very often an owner who could no longer afford to feed it has only recently turned it out, or it is quite old and unable to adequately chew the grasses.