The Haunting

How can you forget the horse slaughter on Cow Mountain in Eastern Kentucky?

By Jenni Laidman

Published on Louisville.com

Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019

Tonya Conn stands in the spitting snow atop Cow Mountain, scoffing at Sheena Maynard in her lace-up boots with decorative gold metal studs on the toes.

“Well, you said to wear boots!” Maynard says.

“I didn’t say to come dressed to go out and party,” Conn replies, cozy in her winter-weight camo overalls, but with eyes carefully outlined and lashes mascaraed. “I never told you to wear beautiful stuff.”

Maynard and Conn huddle with a half-dozen others in a thicket of slender gray trees. When they climbed the embankment, they found the stinking corpse at their feet. In silhouette, if you ignore certain lurid details, the white horse looks like it’s trotting away. But most of its abdomen is gone, along with much of its viscera. Its pink-tinted ribs lie exposed like giant piano keys. Just behind the horse’s front shoulder: a bullet hole.

“I guess here’s our opportunity to get a bullet,” says Megan Goble, who grew up at the foot of this mountain.

Maynard looks at Conn. “If I put some gloves on and dig a bullet out of that horse, is that what you need?”

“You wouldn’t,” Conn says.

Everybody knows Maynard is a germophobe. Everybody knows she always carries hand sanitizer and a change of clothes and shoes. Everyone knows she won’t use a public restroom. Everybody knows the then-34-year-old wouldn’t let a runny-nose toddler touch her.

Maynard persists. “If I can get a bullet out of this horse, is that what you need to find who killed these horses?”

“Yeah,” Conn replies. “That’s what we’re up here looking for.”

Maynard takes off her new leather jacket and puts on one of the face masks she brought with her. (COVID-19 is still months away.) She pulls out a pair of blue-green rubber gloves, the kind one buys to handle caustic household products, and to the group’s combined horror and grim amusement, she crouches just behind the animal’s front legs, reaches her left arm into the cave below the ribs and begins pulling out the maroon mess of its remaining organs.

‘They’ve run for their lives.’

Tonya Conn

“Sheena, you always say: Go big or go home,” Conn taunts.

She, Maynard and Goble have known one another for nine or ten years. “Now they’re more like my kids,” Conn messages me later. “Although there are days they would rather throat punch me, I love them like my own.”

“I hate you, Tonya,” Maynard growls, tugging the thin tissue that wraps the organs. “This the liver?” she asks, pointing with a knife at a slick purplish mass. Conn, a former vet tech in a large animal practice, confirms it is. Maynard slashes at the connective tissue, separating viscera from the chest wall.

“See all that clotted blood?” Conn says. “That will be your trail right there.” They hope it’s the trail to a bullet.

“I’m glad I didn’t eat no breakfast,” one of the men in the party comments. In the video made at the scene that afternoon, the others chuckle in uncomfortable recognition. Maynard continues slicing away with her right hand, her left hand now resting in a pool of congealed blood. “Oh, Lord Jesus in heaven, please help us!” she cries. It’s not that she’s religious. It’s just what you have to say when you’re elbow-deep in a carcass, and you just got stinking goop on your new boots, and you still haven’t found the bullet you desperately want to find. She hopes, they all hope, that a bullet will be the essential clue to what feels like a collective nightmare: Someone, very likely someone they know, killed 20 healthy, free-roaming horses atop Cow Mountain. Maybe a bullet will help them find out just who.

Monday, Dec. 16

For Tonya Conn it begins Monday as she feeds the 11 animals in her barn. Conn, 50 at the time of these events, lives in the Floyd County town of Garrett near the Knott County line, some 200 miles east of Louisville. Monday marks day two in her brief breather before Christmas. Not only does Conn run an animal-welfare group, Dumas Rescue, with a tiny band of volunteers, but she and other Dumas volunteers collect a building full of food, toys and clothing donations for a giant Christmas party every year. Planning for the event began before Halloween, and the work didn’t stop until the party was over. That was Saturday. Conn’s life is bursting with such things. Her Facebook page is a mix of animal rescue updates, silly memes, Christian messages, photos of her feet by a firepit and an occasional glamor headshot: her shoulder-length blond hair parted in the center and winged to frame her eyes, always darkened by the eyeliner she won’t leave the house without.

When she receives a text from Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt around 4 p.m., she isn’t surprised. She and the sheriff often work together. Deputies contact her on animal-welfare cases. They ask her to step in if someone heading to jail leaves untended animals behind. But the details of this text astonish her. Tomorrow, the sheriff wants her help searching the Cow Mountain strip job — “strip job” is the local term for a reclaimed strip mine — in response to a report that every horse on the mountain has been shot and killed. Conn doesn’t want to believe it. “If they were really dead, as bad as it sounds, I hoped maybe somebody had put some bad hay back there, and they died from that — anything but the malice of somebody shooting them.” Or maybe they aren’t even dead, she thinks. Maybe it’s just a bad joke.

But Chuck Bradford, one of the first people to hear from the sheriff, had already confirmed the truth. At the sheriff’s request, he and his then-20-year-old son, Dalton, headed up the mountain to look around. Bradford is oddly qualified for the assignment. A decade ago, his family lost 15 head of cattle up there. His wife’s grandfather kept a herd of 30-some on the strip job. “We’d ride up every Sunday, and we missed a Sunday,” he says. The next week, “They’d fallen over dead,” he says. Half the cattle were gone. A postmortem examination revealed strychnine. They were intentionally poisoned.

Bradford figured, at worst, that’s what he would find on this mission for the sheriff. Then, as the sun lowered atop the rough mesa where chunks of glossy black coal still surface, he found the dead horses. He called the sheriff and told him, “It looks like a massacre.”

Tuesday, Dec. 17

The sheriff’s news keeps Conn awake, listening to a fierce storm rolling through the Eastern Kentucky hills, dreading the muck, the treacherous trip up the mountain in the morning and whatever waits for her at the crest. At the best of times, she finds the Cow Mountain strip job eerie, unwelcoming. “I’ve never been on a mountain that’s as desolate and lonely as that one,” she says. Just three months earlier, she rescued horses from its other side, and it was bleak then, too. “I don’t ever remember the sun shining.”

There are dozens of trails up Cow Mountain, and John Goble, 58 in 2019, white bearded and broad bellied, knows most of them. The former county magistrate and used-car dealer lives at the foot of the mountain in a handsome, sprawling brown house with a green metal roof. Every year he and friends plant portions of the strip job with forage for deer and horses. He rides its rutted paths in a side-by-side the way other people take the interstate. (The vehicles look like two- or four-seat Army Jeeps.) He traverses its steep paths and hairpin curves in the most forbidding weather to visit friends on the other side of the mountain. He hunts its hillocks and its depressions. In a landscape where a stunted evergreen or an ever-so-slight rise serve as trail markers, an internal map guides him easily. Late Tuesday morning, with his then-30-year-old daughter, Megan, beside him in his Polaris, he leads three more vehicles up the steep, sloppy trail to look for dead horses while a mousy gray sky tosses handfuls of sleet.

Sheriff Hunt rides with a volunteer firefighter. More than once as the vehicle claws its way through viscous mud or tilts in a flirtation with gravity’s pull on a sharply banked turn, he thinks about getting out and walking. It would feel safer. And he knows this mountain. When he was a boy on Cow Creek, it was his backyard.

Everyone in this dismayed convoy, not just the sheriff and deputies, carry guns. Some of the civilians say the guns are for bear. For others, it’s the coyotes. For more than a few, it’s the human predators they worry about. “How safe are we back here?” Conn wonders as she white-knuckles a grab bar. After her sleepless night, she’s running on adrenaline alone as they bounce along the trail.

Near the summit, 21-one-year-old J.T. Layne, a volunteer firefighter and pipeline worker who drives one of the side-by-sides, feels the mood, already solemn beneath the throaty roars of the off-road vehicles, grow heavier, quieter. His stomach drops as a queer chill descends. “The smell of death just roams the whole ridge line,” he says.

Deputy Derrick Blackburn is in the back of a side-by-side driven by Dumas volunteer Kyle Griffith. Blackburn’s voice is a musical rumble. He leaves generous spaces around each sentence, unbothered by the silence he creates. As they crawl up the rain-bogged trail, he begins to understand what they’re about to see. He can smell the rot. “I’ve never been in any kind of war or anything, but from watching horror movies, it looked like a battlefield,” he says. “It makes you mad and sad and everything. … Those horses never bothered anybody.” When he gets off the mountain, he’ll spend the rest of the day with his own three horses, Lady, Rusty and Daisy, trying to calm down, trying to imagine “what on earth would possess anybody to do a thing like that?” Before the day ends, it becomes a question people ask around the world.

The strip job is a rolling plateau stretching to the cloud-pocked horizon, but its expanse hides a complex of burnished weed-covered rises and green depressions, making the terrain a complicated maze. The search team will find 13 horse bodies today. Griffith will create a map of where each horse fell by taking the GPS position of each carcass. On a map, the shooting seems organized, as though the horses were plowed down as they stood in neat rows. But to the search party wandering the twisting paths, it is chaos: massive horse bodies down one trail, nothing down others. Horses in the brambles. Horses in a scooped-out hollow, gracile yearlings stretched out beside their dams. Searchers quickly lose their bearings in the puzzling landscape.

The first horse they see is a chestnut mare with a white mane and four white feet. Already, her body bloats. Conn identifies the red balloon bursting from the mare’s vulva as an amniotic sac expelled in death. Against the sac’s pink membrane, Conn can just make out the tiny white hoof of a foal waiting to be born. All these paint horses on Cow Mountain have four white feet. Even though the group expected nothing less than this carnage, no one is immune from the shock. Megan Goble watches emotion play across the sheriff’s rectangular face. “He’s a big horse person,” she says. “He was pretty upset.” Detective Sgt. Kevin Shepherd and Conn begin examining the carcass. The firemen with the group flip the heavy body to look for an exit wound. There is none. They search for shell casings, as they will all day, and will again later using a metal detector. They will find nothing.

After that first horse, the land falls away into what Megan Goble dubs Death Valley. “And that’s where we find them,” she says. Detective Shepherd, 6’1” and cue-ball bald, has a voice that is soft and measured, like he’s carefully giving directions to children. “It’s just horses as far as you could look,” he says. “You could stand in one spot and see across this strip mine, flat, just horses strewn all over the place.”

As Shepherd makes notes, Conn lists the horses’ distinguishing markings, their color, their sex. She looks at their teeth to estimate ages. Other deputies scan for evidence. They pick up empty soda bottles, maybe recently dropped, maybe months’ old. Vehicle tracks crisscross the mesa, but last night’s rain makes it impossible to say which tracks are old and which are new. Layne, who had Conn as his gym teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade, imagines what might have happened. He sees a man with a lightweight semi-automatic rifle strapped over his shoulder, a gun capable of shooting fast, penetrating rounds. He sees an experienced hunter who knows this ground well, firing over and over from a side-by-side, inside which the shell casings clatter to the floor. Megan Goble pictures someone on the ridge above Death Valley picking horses off one by one. Nearly every shot is a lung shot. Some horses are probably hit more than once. Some horses run before they fall. In places scrapes in the earth testify to a horse that kicked and struggled as it died. But in Goble’s vision of what happened, the hunt changes after the initial sniper attack. Now the shooter and maybe a companion track down the remaining animals and continue the bloodbath. Maybe that’s how it happened. Everyone has a theory. No one knows.

It probably wasn’t a group of teenagers or young people partying, Sheriff Hunt says. He comes to believe there is only one shooter. “Somebody just doing this out of pure meanness.” A lifelong police officer and son of a Floyd County deputy, Hunt retired from the Kentucky State Police after 21 years and began serving as sheriff in 2014. He’s a compact man with short-cropped light hair who gestures with both hands, palms open, as he talks about what might make someone slaughter a herd. “OK, you just lost your mind for a minute and shot a horse,” he says. “How do you shoot horse after horse after horse to watch it fall? For no other reason than just to watch it fall, mad at whatever issues you have with yourself?” His voice gets quieter, thinner, as he pictures it. “But whatever you got going on — just to shoot 20 horses?”

‘How do you shoot horse

after horse to watch it fall?’

— Floyd County Sheriff John Hunt

The chase couldn’t have been much of a challenge. These were animals conditioned to human company. People meant food. “They would come right up to you,” Megan Goble says, “and you could pet on them and love on ’em. A lot of people in the community would go up there and feed them.” On that cold December afternoon on the carcass-scattered field, three surviving horses approach. (Ultimately, six surviving horses are found.) “And then they followed us,” Goble says. “They’re used to people being with them, so it probably wouldn’t have been hard. [The shooter or shooters] probably walked right up to them, close to them, and then just went on a shooting spree.”

As Conn wanders deeper into the killing field, she begins to personalize it. Another person may not attribute human emotions to animals, but Conn’s life is overrun and animated by her compassion for them. Dumas Rescue was founded in 2002 to deal with stray, abandoned or abused dogs. Conn took over as president in 2004. Demand drove the group to branch into horses about eight years ago. There’s no telling how many animals she’s found homes for in those years but definitely several thousand. Now she’s caught in a flood of the abused and abandoned. She can’t stop it. She put up a gate at her home to keep people from dropping off unwanted pets, and still they come. From February to mid-April 2021, Conn and Dumas Rescue saved almost 500 dogs — almost as many as they rescued in all of 2020. Even she’s amazed. “How do you do that? Where do they come from?”

Like nearly everyone in rescue, her personal animal menagerie has grown: She has six horses and seven dogs. Her adopted cow died in 2020. Each animal has a story: There’s Sister, the Pomeranian mix she bottle-fed from the time the pup was three days old. During the workday, the pup stayed in an insulated lunch box in the principal’s office at the school where Conn works. Several times a day, the school’s public-address system would call her to feedings: “Tonya, come to the office please.” Gus the pug mix was starving when he arrived with his brother Gil, who was dead by the time Conn set eyes on him. Gus was so terrified, he wouldn’t come into her house. In winter, Conn snuck up on him and wrestled him into a sweater while the muscular mutt fought her. “He ate me up!” she says. He lived in the barn loft for a year, coming down only to eat and drink. “Then one day he decided he was coming into the house. And he came in and that was that,” she says.

Brody is a “stout, sassy gelding,” who, at seven days old, had been pulled from a strip job and roped in a yard with a dog collar around his neck. An older man saw the colt, traded his push mower to save it, and brought him to Conn. The man didn’t even have gas money to get home. A thin, ragged colt staggered from the man’s ramshackle trailer. “I thought: That horse will never live,” Conn says. Now she calls the eight-year-old “my heart horse. He nickers when I get out of sight. He’s a mama’s boy.”

The stories go on and on.

As they walk Cow Mountain, Conn fights her own instincts, determined to keep her emotions in check. Then she sees the red-and-white filly, maybe a year old, her front leg cocked like she’s ready to run, her head twisted awkwardly against a tree, her mouth soft and white, her empty eyes staring into the sky. “It a baby,” Conn says quietly. “You can’t not see their fear. You can’t not smell the fear. You just can’t. If you know anything about horses, you see fear in their eyes. They’ve run for their lives.”

All the horses are shot in the chest except one. A little cinnamon-colored paint lying in the open has a hole in his face where a bullet entered. In its mouth, a bit of fescue remains. That detail, the fact that the horse was feeding peacefully, almost everyone mentions it to me. As the afternoon winds on, the group discovers two more carcasses farther into the brambles. These bear obvious signs of animal scavenging: a ribcage revealed from the shoulder to mid-belly, another horse with a neck sliced to ribbons and two pink holes where eyes had been. As the group heads down Cow Mountain in wrecked silence, it starts to snow.

Atop the Cow Mountain strip job.

“One of Us”

At the foot of the mountain, a crew from the CBS affiliate in Hazard, WYMT, waits for them. Megan Goble goes home and posts photographs of the dead animals on Facebook. She’s furious, unwilling to spare anyone the gore she witnessed. “I felt like people needed to see,” she says. “If people don’t know this goes on, don’t know the severity of it, nothing is going to happen. And people need to know. They need to get mad. It needs to bother them. It needs to upset them.”

What may be the worst of it: Whoever did this, they know this strip job. This wasn’t a stranger climbing one of the many access roads up the mountain. A stranger would attract attention. This fact eats at the sheriff, this strong possibility that he’s looking at the work of a neighbor. “I hate to think that it’s somebody that grew up in our area,” Hunt says, “that cherished a horse and knew it, and knew our history. It’s a cowardly act, and it’s a defenseless animal.

“And it’s personal, to be honest. It’s personal.”

Megan Goble says, “It wouldn’t shock me a bit if it was somebody that I went to high school with or knew my whole life. It wouldn’t shock me ’cause that’s how close-knit we are. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows where you live. Everybody knows who your parents are.” That’s just the way it is in Prestonsburg.

Prestonsburg proper is less than 10 miles from Cow Mountain. On the road between the strip job and downtown stands the memorial to the town’s biggest tragedy, the bus accident that killed 26 elementary and high school students and the driver in 1958 when school bus No. 27 plunged into the flood-swollen Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. At the time, it was the worst bus accident in the history of the United States, only to be matched in the state in 1988 by the horrific bus accident in Carrollton caused by a drunken driver.

Like many mountain towns, Prestonsburg is longer than it is wide, its business district snaking like a river, constrained by surrounding topography. There is the usual jumble of chain stores that unite the nation in a ticky-tacky monotony: Walmart, Walgreens, AutoZone, a half-dozen Family Dollars, Dollar Trees and Dollar Generals. Nearly every fast-food franchise is here, and McDonald’s twice, separated by 2.2 miles of highway. You can even buy a Starbucks latte at Food City. But the Floyd County seat of 2,900 souls roughly an hour from West Virginia to the east or Virginia to the south retains a healthy collection of homegrown commerce. Skip both McDonald’s and grab a Smashburger at Dairy Cheer instead. Ignore Taco Bell and settle in at El Azul Grande or El Rodeo Grande. Cold-shoulder Starbucks and zip over to City Perk. Have a nice dinner at the Brick House. Motor to the Cloud Nine Cafe at the airport on a strip job just over the Martin County line. It’s crowded on Sunday afternoon, but if you’re lucky, you may see an elk grazing or an airplane taking off.

It’s hard not to attribute some symbolism to the community’s choice of an icon: a rainbow arch bridge built in 1928. It’s celebrated in murals and signs all over town and etched in white on every city trash barrel. But the bridge itself is now so dilapidated that it’s barred to even pedestrian traffic. Yet Prestonsburg’s downtown is vital, with dress shops, children’s-wear purveyors, a sewing center, a photo studio. You can do yoga in the old post office building and even have your wrinkles smoothed and lips plumped at a downtown aesthetician business. Don’t look here for Mayberry. The town is not trapped in amber. There is no Floyd’s Barbershop; Wright’s barber shop is a butter-colored building with orange and aqua highlights. And Billy Ray’s, with its red upholstered booths, tin ceiling and low lighting is too slick to be the Bluebird Cafe. As in many towns, bored teens spend their evenings driving around listening to music or congregating in a downtown parking lot. What Prestonsburg lacks in adolescent entertainment it makes up for in churches. Even the downtown stores advertise their love for Jesus: “This studio is owned by our Father in heaven I just manage it.” “Fall for Jesus He never leaves.” “Every single holler you go up, I guarantee there’s a church,” Megan Goble says.

When the sheriff’s department announces a road accident on Facebook, at least a dozen people pipe up to say they’re praying. When there’s flooding, people are praying. When there’s a rock fall, people are praying. When the sheriff’s house burned down in December 2020, they prayed again. But more often, the sheriff’s Facebook page is full of drug-bust announcements — fentanyl, heroin, meth, that unholy trinity — week after week after week, the same sad litany accompanied by more prayer and atta-boys for the sheriff.

But to the wider world, the vital little town didn’t exist until Megan Goble started posting photographs on Facebook. And suddenly, everyone was watching. “Within the first hour or two of me posting, my phone did not stop,” she says. “My anxiety was going through the roof because I was like, What have I done? I think I had over a thousand and some shares within the first hour, and it just kept growing and growing and growing and growing, and people kept sending me messages and calling. I had 300 friend requests from people from all over.” In 24 hours, her post had been shared 14,000 times. Journalists from everywhere — Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland — were calling Conn, Goble and the sheriff. Within that first 24 hours, there was a $1,500 reward fund created by Megan Goble, Sheena Maynard and the sheriff personally. By noon, the reward rose to $3,000. Four days later, it reached $20,000, with donations from all over the country. It finally peaked at $23,000.

The reward fuels rumors. The sheriff’s department’s phone rings with tips and, from all over the world, encouragement. “Everybody wanted to pitch in and help,” Hunt says. Although some tips are clearly from people hoping for a payday, many more that arrive via the department’s anonymous tip line are sincere. “We checked every tip that came in,” Detective Shepherd says. “At one time, I think every time that phone rang, it was a call about the horses.”

Although this is the worst horse-abuse incident anyone can recall, it’s not the only time strip job horses have been shot. Four years ago, somebody shot three stallions point blank in Martin County just west of Floyd on the West Virginia line. The deaths remain unsolved, but some believe the stallions were shot to keep strip job mares from getting pregnant. “It used to be common knowledge that you wouldn’t put a stud horse on a strip job,” says Joey Collins, the Pikeville large-animal veterinarian who came up to Cow Mountain to perform a field necropsy two days after the Cow Mountain horse slaughter was discovered. It wasn’t a first for him. “I’ve seen things like this,” Collins said. Thirteen years ago, a pair of teenagers killed three horses and injured eight on a strip job near Elkhorn City in Pike County in the far southeast corner of the state, shooting one four-year-old mare 50 times. They simply stood over the mare and unloaded into her. The teenagers pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges and were each sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution. In 2021 there have been at least two more fatal horse shootings, and at least one horse wounded by gunshot.

But why are horses even up on these mountains? Why are strip jobs throughout the eastern half of the state home to growing horse herds, half or more feral? Collins, a vet for 32 years — whose clinic operates on a first-come, first-served basis because people come so far to see him — has watched the herds expand. Fueling that growth, he suggests, is the closing of horse slaughterhouses in the United States in 2007 when Congress essentially banned domestic horse-meat operations. Slaughter plants meant that horses always had market value. They were worth too much to simply let go. The Humane Society of the United States takes a different view. With slaughterhouses still operating in Canada and Mexico, it argues, the number of horses sent to the abattoir hasn’t decreased. It reports that more than 80,000 American horses, most of them healthy, are slaughtered every year. Instead, the organization maintains, horse abandonment is an outgrowth of economic downturns — a rationale that, if you think about it, is close to the one Collins offers. In any event, even without U.S. slaughterhouses, there are occasional stories about horses disappearing from strip jobs, rumored to be taken for slaughter over a border. A federal program that paid people to adopt feral Mustangs out West turned into a direct line to the slaughterhouse for some horses when people used the program for profit, recruiting everyone they knew to adopt animals, which they then sent for slaughter. Further, illegal slaughter operations have been reported in the United States.

Another reason for the growing abandonment problem is the lack of consequences for the owner who walks away from an animal. The practice didn’t start as abandonment; people released their mares and geldings on strip jobs for summer grazing, then brought them home before winter set in. When coal was still king, mining company personnel and some miners would set out hay bales and keep an eye on the animals, says State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson. (Grayson is in Carter County in northeast Kentucky.) “It used to be a pretty symbiotic relationship,” Webb says. But a lot has changed. The mines closed. Some sites went into bond forfeiture or bankruptcy, she said. With mine jobs gone, families couldn’t keep up with the expense of horse ownership. An often-cited University of Maine survey found the average annual cost of owning a single horse is $3,800 — and that’s if you can keep the horse on your own property, the common rural practice. Add another $8,000 or so if the horse must be boarded. Cash-strapped or indifferent horse owners stopped bringing their summer-grazing horses home for the winter. But what turned the brushfire of abandonment into a wildfire of overpopulation was the rampant release of stallions onto the strip jobs with inevitable results. Herds doubled in size, often outstripping the ability of the land to support them. They receive no veterinary care, such as regular vaccination. Sick or injured horses die if no one can intervene, and although these horses will approach people for food, that doesn’t mean they’ll stand still to have a lame foot tended. Oftentimes, people who live near strip jobs will help feed horses and bring them salt blocks rather than see animals starve or wander down to the road to be hit by cars, but that’s at best a temporary solution. Although some view the “wild horses” as tourist attractions, the reality of strip job horses isn’t postcard material. For instance, in 2018-’19, the Kentucky Humane Society, headquartered in Louisville, removed more than 50 horses from the Ruff-N-Tuff strip job 10 miles west of Prestonsburg. Neighbors who tried to protect the animals from starvation and frequent human harassment were overwhelmed by the animals’ needs and human abuse of the free-roaming horses. In some ways, laws work in the abandoner’s favor, making horses difficult to rescue even when they are starving to death. Owners have interrupted more than one rescue.

Sen. Webb along with Sen. Johnny Turner, D-Prestonsburg, proposed the formation of an Abandoned Horses Task Force after the Cow Mountain horses were killed, but the idea gained no traction in the Republican-controlled Senate in 2020. “We didn’t get a hearing or anything. It just laid there,” Webb says. “Of course, it was a strange session. COVID hit, and nothing really got done.” This year, no animal-welfare legislation passed during the abbreviated legislative session in Frankfort. “Stewardship demands the state tackle the problem,” Webb says. “If you’re going to have them out there, you’ve got to manage them. If you’re going to allow them to exist and continue, they need to be managed for their health and the health of other species.”

Conn said a visit this spring to one strip job she declined to identify revealed that conditions are worse than ever. “Even though we had a milder winter here and spring grass has been up for five or six weeks, and we’ve had good growth even at the higher elevations, the yearlings are in extremely bad shape, with dull coats, lethargic, not to mention lice-ridden. They have a heavy, heavy load of engorged ticks already. That leads to anemia when they’re already struggling. They’re not getting enough nutrition nursing on a mother who’s already given all she’s got to the baby in her belly when she didn’t have enough forage. It was just really, really heartbreaking to see that they didn’t gain weight with the spring grass.”

In the meantime, the horses are destroying the ecosystem that mine reclamation was to restore, Conn says. Because a horse, unlike deer, elk, or even cattle, pull up grass by the root, they strip the mountaintop bare. When the grasses are gone, the horses eat the bark off the trees. The lost browse and trees mean deer and elk go hungry and turkeys have nowhere to roost. Turkeys eat the insects that attack deer and elk; their absence leads to deer, elk and horses weakened by parasites.

Abandoned horses may prove a barrier to economic growth as well. Fifty-six horses live on the Martiki strip job in Martin County, Conn said. Edelen Renewables, founded by former Democratic state auditor Adam Edelen, plans to construct some 700,000 solar modules on Martiki, which would produce enough power to light up 33,000 homes, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. But abandoned horses are a barrier. “Of course the horses are wreaking havoc on the equipment and the construction,” Conn says.

Lori Redmon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Humane Society, says an aerial survey of reclaimed strip mines this winter revealed 743 abandoned horses roaming Eastern Kentucky, but Redmon said the actual number is probably higher. Even though the absence of leaf cover made it possible to improve on an earlier ground-based survey that found 500 horses, Redmon said some horses were very likely hidden by brush, scrub or other barriers.

Unbridled Spirit

Kentucky is a state that puts a horse on its license plates and adopts “Unbridled Spirit” as its brand. It’s where regular people can name breeders and jockeys and favorite Derby winners and wish each other “Happy Derby” like it’s a second Christmas; where Jefferson County Public Schools elevates a horse race to holiday status and closes every Oaks Day; where schools stage stick-horse Derbies — complete with the Call to Post — for galloping preschoolers. In such a state, how is any of this abandonment and abuse even imaginable, let alone actual?

We are the “Horse Capital of the World,” with one horse for every 19 people (only Oklahoma can beat that); with more than a quarter-million horses (more than in 45 other states); with a horse industry that employs 40,000 and creates $6.5 billion in revenue annually; with the county comprising the state’s biggest city, Louisville, home to 7,400 horses worth an estimated $124 million, in a 2013 survey; with Shelby County on Louisville’s eastern border, the “American Saddlebred Capital of the World,” home to one horse for every eight people; where in Louisville we have big painted fiberglass statues of horses all over town; where we have horse posters and paintings in our family rooms and living rooms and dens. In a state like this, wouldn’t you just assume that abuse and abandonment wouldn’t just be impossible, but anathema?

I mean, what the hell, people?

Yet Kentucky has consistently occupied the absolute bottom of national rankings for animal welfare. In an annual review of animal-protection laws, Kentucky held 50th place for 12 years before rising to 47th in the most recent 2019 survey by finally making it illegal to have sex with an animal. The state also removed a provision that prohibited veterinarians from reporting instances of pet abuse to law enforcement. It was the only state in the country with such a prohibition. But the law doesn’t cover horses. Vets continue to need a second opinion from the state veterinarian to report abuse of poultry or livestock, and that includes horses, which the Kentucky legislature reclassified as livestock instead of domestic companion animals in 2017.

Kentucky ranked 50th in animal protection until 2019 when it rose to 47th by finally making it illegal to have sex with an animal.

Animal Legal Defense Fund

Weeks after the horses were shot on the Cow Creek strip job, Megan Goble and Sheena Maynard meet me for lunch at El Azul Grande. The restaurant in the shopping center carries echoes of Mexico City with its orange-and-blue color scheme and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe presiding over the cash register. People line up outside early Sunday afternoon. Several greet Goble and Maynard, both of whom run dog-grooming shops: Maynard’s is Lou’s Place for Pets (named for her first “foster failure,” the mini-Pinscher Lou); Goble’s is Bones and Bows Dog Salon. Both women rescue animals — lots and lots of animals, usually finding new homes for them, but sometimes keeping the unadoptables: chinchillas that don’t want to be touched, hedgehogs that like to masturbate, a ball python. These are not fun pets. Maynard rescued two sugar gliders, a male and a female who were at first happy in side-by-side cages. Then she rescued another male, which made the female scream and cry because she wanted to be with the boys. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘If you don’t’ get another fucking sugar glider, I’m leaving,’” she says. Another rescue group had a female friend for her female. “I mean, it was just completely satanic. It’s awful. You can’t touch it. And it bites and scratches. But I put it in with the other female, and they absolutely love each other and they hate me. So we’re like college roommates, and I give them offerings so they don’t kill me. But I don’t’ care. They’re safe. Kids aren’t torturing them. They’re not super-expensive to keep up. I don’t mind.”

Goble’s specialty is pit bulls, which are difficult to rehome. She has 11 herself, plus a corgi mix and a hound mix. Maynard focuses on pregnant cats. In February, she was gearing up for kitten season. How many cats share her home? “I’d rather tell you what I weigh,” she says.

One day a few years ago, Maynard’s mother called her about horses running through yards in Arkansas Creek in southern Floyd County. One of the horses had been shot. When I meet Maynard, her hand is swollen from the bite of a grooming customer. Her eyelids are tinted like rainbows, beginning with pink in the inner corners and gradually shading to dark blue. She owns more than 50 palettes of eye shadow with more on the way. She and Goble rode out to Arkansas Creek to see what they could do. As they followed the horses, a man on a four-wheeler flashed a gun and warned them off, claiming to know the horses’ owner. “And as dumb as I can get,” Maynard says, “I turned around and said, ‘Well, good. Because I’ll call the ef-in’ judge right now because we’ve got a warrant on his desk for their arrest.’” She says that was enough to send the gunslinger away. The women caught the mare from the group and walked her to safety using every dog leash in Goble’s car as a harness. Still, the man with the gun had a point. A claim of ownership could have stopped the rescue effort. And even after a rescuer grabs a horse, it’s not over. They must hold onto it for 15 days. They cannot rehome it until the state-mandated “stray hold” runs out.

It used to be worse. In 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear signed a law that reduced the horse stray hold to 15 days from 90. A 90-day stray hold made it hopelessly expensive to remove horses from even life-threatening situations. But Conn says 15 days is still too long. “Fifteen days with 25 horses is a monumental financial obligation,” she says. Her own Dumas Rescue is already strapped financially. “We just blow bubbles — we don’t even keep our head above water.” And because it’s legal to let a horse loose, no horse rescue can begin until a county judge executive is successfully petitioned for permission.

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Conn wants the state to outlaw horse abandonment. She wants the stray hold shortened to five days, which is what’s required for a dog or a cat. Until the law is changed, she says, Kentucky will have a growing population of inbred horses that aren’t being vaccinated against rabies and other diseases, that aren’t being fed regularly when the weather’s against them, that aren’t being cared for when they’re injured, that will probably never be rideable, and that no one will ever want. While the Cow Creek horses were, by all accounts, healthy and well-fed, that’s often not the case. Come winter or summer drought, they starve. They grow desperate for salt and wander down to roads where they’ll destroy yards and gardens and get hit by cars.

“I’ve put a lot of horses to sleep down on the road hit by a car,” veterinarian Collins says. The same owner who might object to an intervention of a rescue group is no longer interested when the horse is dying. “When they’re hit by a car, nobody owns them, nobody will claim them, because then they’d be responsible for damage to the vehicle,” Collins says.

Conn, worn out by the problem, couldn’t be more frustrated. “This practice needs to stop,” she says. “It needs to stop. It shouldn’t be any different for those horses than it is for a dog or cat.”

More at Stake Than Horses

Sunday, Dec. 22, is Maynard’s first trip up Cow Mountain and Conn’s third since the horses were discovered. “Any time there’s a crime involving animals, my phone never stops,” Maynard says. But this time, people all over town were talking about the slaughtered horses. “Everybody’s angry,” she says. “This whole town is outraged by it. Even people who aren’t animal people, who hate dogs, hate cats, will tell you there was no point to this, that whoever did it needs to pay.”

Someone posts on Tonya Conn’s Facebook page: “All the people in the area of these killings should talk to their ministers about giving a sermon on this and what this means to a community where violence against animals is often linked to violence against humans.”

Collins, the veterinarian, fears the truth of this. Scores of studies show a link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. An overview of this research published in 2017 found 94 studies (98 percent of all studies on the subject) showed a connection between domestic violence and animal abuse. A 2014 study of 301 men arrested for domestic violence, for instance, found that 41 percent had committed at least one act of animal abuse as an adult.

“We need to find out who this is,” Collins says. There could be more at stake than horses.

When Collins was unable to recover a bullet for testing during a field necropsy on Thursday, the veterinarian recommended the group ship a body to the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory. And that’s why Maynard and others head up the mountain on the 22nd.

The group quickly finds the smallest yearling, shimmies the carcass onto a tarp, bundles it with bungie cords and lashes it to a utility trailer behind a side-by-side. As they finish, Kyle Griffith wanders off on his own down a narrow track through the brush and then up a rise. Part way up the hill is a shelf where he finds a horse carcass no one has seen before. Soon, the group discovers more bodies in the weeds and vines. Three are partially scavenged, most likely by coyotes and vultures, and maybe by black bear. This is when Maynard volunteers to look for a bullet. She never finds one. But for her, the unpleasant dissection was the least she could do for these animals.

“Those horses suffered. Whether that be for 30 seconds or 30 minutes or an hour or the next day, they suffered,” Maynard says. “I was just so upset over that, I thought, you know, if I could avenge them in any way and make their lives worth something, I was just going to do it.

“If we went back on that mountain, you know, a month into decomposition, if somebody looked at me dead in the face and said, ‘If you’ll dig around in that horse and pull a bullet out, we’ll go arrest that guy right now,’ I would do it again. I would.”

Feb. 19, 2020

John Goble lives in Cow Creek hollow on Megan’s Cove, named for his daughter. Beside the family’s big house is a go-kart track he built for her. The custard-colored building next door was once done up for kids’ parties with pool tables, air hockey and arcade games. Megan may be too old for go-karts and dad’s party barn, but she lives in a little house her father gave her at the end of his driveway. She calls it a fortress because of the tall chain-link fence that keeps her 13 dogs, eight cats, three chinchillas, a ferret, a rat and a python safe. Her Prestonsburg grooming salon is on the lot where her dad ran his used-car dealership. Today he’s doing her another favor by taking me up to the Cow Creek strip job.

We’re a tight fit on the two-seat Polaris Ranger. My right hip is jammed hard against the small bar that defines the edge of the seat. Without it, I would shoot off the side under pressure. I give up on the uncooperative seatbelt, which raises my stress level. I remind myself that John Goble has made this drive in the snow and mud. He reassures me that this is a daily activity for him.

I can’t hear what father and daughter say once the machine roars across the yard and toward the mountain. The day is sunny, clear and cool. The sky is a golden blue streaked with wispy clouds. On flat sections of trail, I hear John Goble’s nice voice rise above the engine’s guttural rumble: “She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man.” Then the engine swallows the rest of the song.

I spent an hour this morning with Sheriff Hunt and Sgt. Shepherd in the three-room sheriff’s department. It’s shoehorned into the 1964 courthouse with the handsome bronze statue of Prestonsburg’s Bert Combs, “the governor from the mountains,” out front. A photo of Barney Fife watches over us from one wall of the jampacked sheriff’s office, which is improbably papered in green-and-gold stripes, like someone’s 1992 dining room. On Christmas day 2019, Shepherd learned that the UK diagnostics lab recovered two bullets from the horse carcass. Soon, the sheriff’s office knew what type of gun it came from. Local gun stores say they don’t sell too many of them. Hunt doesn’t want to share anything about the ballistics. All over town, people are saying the bullet is a .22, but Hunt won’t confirm it, and that’s not the whole story anyway. He and Shepherd sound optimistic about finding the shooter. Shepherd will sound optimistic again when I talk to him three weeks later.

The three horses that followed the search team the day they first saw the slaughter have been moved to the Kentucky Humane Society’s Willow Hope Farm in Simpsonville: The mare, obviously once someone’s pet, was hugely pregnant when she came off the mountain and still nursing a yearling. KHS separated the exhausted, hungry animal from the colt. They named the mare Hope, which means that the Humane Society farm now carries the names of two Cow Creek horses. Willow came off the same strip job in October. They named the yearling Knox, which is Scottish for “from the hills.” He’s adopted quickly. In May 2020, Hope gave birth to Lucius, who was named by a donor and adopted in December. Hope remains in training but will be ready for adoption soon. A few days after Hope and Knox are rescued, Hope’s older filly is brought off the mountain and to the KHS farm. They name her Diamond, for coal under pressure. She’s feral, and Redmon, KHS’ president, says they’re taking her training slowly. “She’s very untrusting of people. She was born out there and never handled,” she says. “The trauma of the shooting seems to have lingered in her and showed up in her distrust of humans.” The last three survivors remain on Cow Creek. Dumas Rescue and KHS have so far been unable to retrieve them.

John Goble stops the Polaris as we reach the top of the mountain so Megan can climb out to open a gate. We don’t travel a thousand yards before we see an almost-bright horse skull lying in the tawny weeds. John drives up a gentle slope where the land forms a bowl, and we find two clouds of fur — like horse mirages — amid the rocks, marking the spot where two horses once lay. Only a few feet beyond: a rib cage, a leg bone, a hoof. All over the landscape we find nothing but bones — dragged into bushes, fought over by scavengers, torn up in a feeding frenzy. A column of vertebrae, ivory ribs, a jawbone, an empty eye socket, a row of teeth in a perfect skull. Sometimes, a surprise odor of rot rises from the soil and disappears.

Megan leads me down a narrow path to where the second group of horses was found. She points to the flat area halfway up where Kyle Griffith discovered the first horse. A spine marks the spot.

Several people have told me that the horses should have been buried so the survivors wouldn’t be traumatized. But what happened instead, these bones, feels right. Let them all return to earth. Let them become part of the scarred land. Like the strip mine vanishes beneath the grasses, let nature take over and heal. Let the coyotes and vultures feed. At least their gore has purpose. Unlike those 20 deaths, which can never make sense.

Throughout 2020 my story — this story — is trapped in limbo, unpublishable as the daily crises of 2020 dominate everything. But I can’t escape it. At least once a week, my iPhone or computer perversely selects a gory image of a slaughtered horse as a daily “featured photograph.” I finally beg for help to block future views of the nightmarish corpses.

Tonya Conn tells me the massacre still haunts her. “It hasn’t left me alone at all. I have nightmares about it and see it and worry about it. It doesn’t leave. It’s actually really hard for me to run up the courage to go on a strip job to look at these horses,” she says. “I have to mentally prepare for it. I had to try to put up a barrier, to not be so emotionally involved, because it’s hard to go up there and to not feel that you’re going to see that kind of carnage again.”

I talk again to Detective Shepherd, who says the case is stalled. He hopes a tip may lead to something but counts on nothing. “You would think that the money would roust them out, but it didn’t,” Shepherd says.

Last October, back at El Azul Grande, Maynard says, “We’re not surprised at all. When you turn your back to everything, when you won’t turn in your neighbors for selling drugs and beating their kids in the front yard, you’re not going to turn in somebody shooting an animal.

“It’s somebody that knew that mountain. It’s somebody that had access to that property,” she continues. “You know your kids have played in their yard. You know your kids go to school with them. Your kids go to church with them. That’s the reality. And that’s why it’s so important that we smoke them out…Next time, it might not be a horse. Next time, it might be a kid. Next time, it might be an old lady. Next time, it might be his wife. You know, it’s more terrifying that people are willing to look away. If it were my own brother, I would want to know.”

Author: jennilaidman

I'm a freelance writer who often writes about science and medicine.

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