Reviving hope: wild horses and ecosystem restoration in Appalachia, USA

Sep 2023

Deep within the hills of Eastern Kentucky, amidst reclaimed mine lands near the town of Lovely, Kentucky, ten remarkable horses now graze peacefully across a sprawling 1,000-acre expanse. Unbeknownst to these captivating companions, this land has been earmarked for restoration, with a mission to re-establish ecological balance from years gone by – and remarkably, these horses are playing a vital role in the rehabilitation of the land. 

At the forefront of this initiative is Clifford Smith, the Restoration Leader at Renew Appalachia who has a mission to restore reclaimed mine lands and is helping to support the horses that call his land home. Cliff has spoken about his experience with these untamed creatures on his restoration project as truly transformative.  

A marred Kentucky mountain range

Kentucky and the broader Appalachian region have long been known as prime mining locations due to abundant natural resources and unique geological composition. Rich coal deposits, often conveniently near the surface, have attracted mining operations. Accessible coal seams within the Appalachian Mountains have facilitated extraction, contributing to the historical significance of mining in the area. 

Mining techniques fall into two main categories: surface mining and deep mining, each with distinct methods and environmental consequences. Renew Appalachia land experienced both types of mining from the 1960s through to 2010’s.  

Impact of surface mining at Renew Appalachia site 

Surface mining involves large-scale deforestation and heavy machinery to access natural resources. Sixty years of mining and the resulting reclamation work at Renew Appalachia’s site have left a hard and compact soil surface across a vast area.  

During rainfall, water hits this compacted surface and is unable to penetrate the ground as it would in healthy, well-structured soil. Instead, water is inclined to accumulate on the surface where it pools and flows into engineered runoff channels. This makes restoration of the ecosystem function particularly challenging.   

On top of degraded soil, the deforestation of the Appalachian land has contributed to a fast-growing monoculture. These monocultures pose significant challenges to habitats due to their negative impact on biodiversity, ecosystem balance, and overall habitat health. A monoculture occurs when a single invasive weed species dominates an area, displaces native plants, essential for various animal species’ survival, and disrupts the intricate relationships within the ecosystem. By outcompeting native plants and altering habitat structures, these invasive species limit suitable nesting, feeding, and shelter opportunities for wildlife. 

Image credit: Joel Caldwell

Guardians of the hills 

Amidst the backdrop of degraded land sit 10 grazing horses who have not just called this site home but are actively improving the soil with every step they take. These horses are far from the usual equines that find shelter behind stable doors and receive meticulous care from mane to hoof.  

However, these horses have not always been roaming the Appalachian hills. In the early 1990s, domestic horses were released for free-range grazing across Appalachian mine lands, and with time, their population grew into generations of wild horses – estimated to be more than 10,000 today! 


These horses have had to navigate the rugged and damaged terrain for two decades without anyone’s watchful eye. That was until Erin O’Neill emerged as their saving grace in 2020. 

Image credit: Appalachian Legacy Facebook page 

Erin, a modern-day “Wild Horse Annie”, stands as a champion for the safeguarding and preservation of these wild horses – and cares for about 4,000 horses that roam Appalachia’s coal mine sites! 

Her life’s dedication centers around these majestic creatures, overseeing the well-being of multiple herds in Appalachian region. By conducting censuses and narrating their stories through social media, Erin and her Appalachian Legacy Initiative supporters relentlessly strive for ‘A brighter future for the horses of Coal Country,’ all on a nonprofit basis. 

After three years of full-time immersion with the roaming horses, Erin reflects, “These years have brimmed with countless memorable moments—joyous, devastating, and occasionally magical.” 

Cultivating renewal with mob grazing 

Erin is supervising and supporting the horses on Cliff’s land in practicing mob grazing, a sustainable land management technique. This practice has proven to be a vital force in the ongoing restoration efforts of Renew Appalachia.

“Mob grazing is a short-duration, high-density grazing with a longer than usual grass recovery period” says Tom Chapman, a farmer working with Soil Association.  

As these majestic horses graze, their hooves gently work the compacted earth, allowing it to breathe and fostering a healthy soil structure. This process promotes the growth of a diverse range of plant species, serving as a natural defense against soil erosion and enhancing rainwater absorption, reducing runoff and the risk of flooding. 

Mob grazing further contributes to the distribution of horse manure, enriching the land and replenishing crucial nutrients that were previously lost due to years of mining. 

Image credit:  Appalachian Legacy Facebook page 

Challenges along the way

Under the watchful guidance of Erin and Cliff, these gentle horses are significantly contributing to Renew Appalachia, aiding in the reconstruction of its ecosystem and bring about ecological balance.  

Yet, Cliff and Erin’s mission extends beyond this point. Unhealthy herds, if not managed, tend to overgraze and become confined to limited areas, exacerbating problems for both the land and the horses’ well-being. Therefore, maintaining the health of these herds is crucial. With Cliff’s support, Erin is setting up a sanctuary to house approximately 50 horses requiring specialised care due to ailments or injuries. These horses will rotate in and out of the sanctuary, nurturing stronger herds and ensuring the ongoing renewal of the hillside ecosystem. 


Harmony in restoration

Amidst rugged Appalachia, where coal mining scars run deep, a tale of resilience, renewal, and collaboration emerges. Erin’s steadfast dedication to these forgotten companions and Cliff’s compassionate stewardship have rekindled hope for the Appalachian coal mine. The horses’ partnership with their guardians exemplifies the potential of collective action to restore ecological balance in Lovely, Kentucky. 

Read more about Renew Appalachia

Volunteer blogger Samantha Roderick is a Creative Associate Product Manager with a passion for storytelling.