Saving the Horses of Our Imagination

THE HORSE wasn’t just skinny, she was skeletal. Not just thirsty, desperate. Alive, but just barely.

When the scrawny filly wandered into Joey Ferris’ yard, he knew exactly where she had come from. Ferris was a lieutenant at the Mingo County Sheriff’s Office, where operators frequently fielded calls about horses like this. In addition to putting out food and water, he decided to use the opportunity to call attention to their ongoing plight.

He began the video he uploaded to YouTube in 2017 with a matter-of-fact assessment: “Bad things are happening in Southern West Virginia.”

“People get a horse,” Ferris says into the camera, eyebrows furrowed, “and they leave the horse on the strip mine.” 

Behind him, the cumin-colored filly bowed toward a pan of water, her ombre tail flicking away dogged summer gnats. It had been a few weeks since this one had appeared on his property, he explained. Her ribs were once again beginning to disappear beneath her flesh, but the horse’s hip bones strained against her hide like a pair of blunt  arrowheads. “We’ve been feeding her really good, but she’s still bony.” 

Ferris posted the video to his YouTube channel and called it Abandoned Horses of WV Need Help. But Ferris was also in need of assistance. The bony brown horse was content to hang out in his backyard for a meal or two, but she bolted at the first sign of a harness. So he forwarded the video to someone who might know what to do. 

If anyone knew that West Virginia’s abandoned horses needed help, it was Tinia Creamer, who had been trying to get people to pay attention to the problem for years—in blog posts, presentations to politicians, and YouTube videos of her own. Creamer runs Heart of Phoenix, a West Virginia horse rescue about two hours north of Ferris’s home in the area known as the Southern Coalfields, where decades of strip-mining – removing mountaintops to access the minerals beneath – have turned the undulating topography into flat, grassy prairies ideal for grazing. The consolation prize: for years, locals took advantage of the newly available  space.  

It was an informal system with implicit rules: Round up your horses in the winter, absolutely no stallions. But when the economy tanked in 2008, many in the region could no longer afford to feed their horses. And so they simply left them—even their stallions—on these sites, hopeful they would survive on the grass that mining companies were legally obligated to plant after operations had shut down. 

“People get a horse and they leave the horse on the strip mine.”

Joey Ferris, Mingo County Sheriff’s Office

Within a decade, thousands of free-roaming horses were scratching out a living on abandoned and active strip mines across nine counties in Eastern Kentucky and four in southern West Virginia, while disagreements over the scope of the problem and how to solve it intensified. Some, like Creamer, maintained the horses were ill-equipped for the elements and needed to be removed. Others argued that all the horses needed was a little supplemental care—a salt block here, a hay bale there—and not only could they endure, they might actually become a point of pride for the region. Something beautiful in a beleaguered place. 

Meanwhile, more horses were turned out. More horses were born. More horses died.   

About a year before Creamer heard from Ferris, her organization responded to a call about another strip mine horse in need. The horse eventually known as Revenant was a deep chestnut with white feet, the front left of which hung uselessly, gruesomely fused in the shape of a hockey stick. His injury was old, perhaps caused by an encounter with a mine shaft or a collision with heavy machinery. Rejected by his herd, the horse had somehow dragged himself across the mountain to find food and water. 

“It is beyond our scope of understanding how he is alive,” Creamer later wrote of Revenant, his body thin and misshapen; it was hardly a question that he be euthanized. 

But when Creamer watched Ferris’s video of the filly who would be named Phoebe, she knew this rescue would go differently. “A starving horse two weeks from death,” Creamer says, but young. “Age was greatly on her side.”

Creamer figured that, like Revenant, Phoebe had also been rejected by her herd. At some point—perhaps weakened by parasites or too dependent on her mother’s milk—she had become a liability. Coyote bait. To drive her away, the other horses kicked her, bit her, or ran her down until the only logical thing for the filly to do was seclude herself. 

But the complex social instinct that told Phoebe to hide also compelled her to seek companions, in this case a miniature pony that belonged to Ferris’s girlfriend. Phoebe was looking for a new herd. 

Visiting Ferris and using that friendly pony as a lure, Creamer enticed Phoebe into a trailer and back to the rescue. A couple weeks after Ferris posted his video, Phoebe was off the mountain for good. 

Feral horses have gathered on decommissioned mines across Appalachia. But how to care for them is disputed. Photo by Kristian Thacker

HEART OF PHEONIX is located a few miles north of Huntington, West Virginia, in the town of Lesage: a smattering of houses, a small grocery, and a hot dog stand perched on the banks of the Ohio River. The rescue currently houses about 40 horses, three of whom had been removed from strip mines.

Gilligan was a two-week-old foal from Mingo County when he and his mother were hit by a car. No one could catch the feral mare, who escaped back into the mountains with a broken leg. But Gilligan was “so little and so hurt,” so much of his skin gone after a skid across the asphalt, that he was easy to capture. 

Two years later, Gilligan plodded lazily across the rescue’s fields while nearby, helping himself at a round bale, was Mario, part of a bachelor herd of stallions HOP removed from an old strip mine in Martin County, Kentucky. “He’s still really tough to catch,” Creamer says, before pointing to a brown and white paint horse who came off the mountain—unbeknownst to anyone—in her 30-year-old mother’s belly, part of another roundup. Suri, they called her, short for surprise. 

Creamer says HOP gets weekly calls from people worried about horses on old or active mines, but today the organization only responds to truly dire cases—injured animals or a nuisance horse in danger of being shot by fed-up locals. 

“It’s very difficult, very costly, very time-consuming, and very unsafe for us to do it,” she says. There’s one other major hurdle: “There is nowhere for them to go.” 

At 40 years old, Creamer has a mane of dark hair, glassy blue eyes, and a full-throated Appalachian accent that stretches her vowels like taffy. She knows it sounds made up but swears it’s true: her first word was horsey. Growing up in Lincoln County, West Virginia, Creamer amassed hundreds of Breyer horse models. By 11, her mom had enrolled her in riding lessons; by 14, she had a horse of her own. She spent her teenage years at auctions with her horse-trader grandfather, who also took her to the Kentucky Derby, where they watched from the infield.

Horses were always there, in real life and in the stories her father used to tell, about growing up a “starving little boy with no daddy in Lincoln County, where having a horse was a luxury.” His voice still caught with emotion when he talked about the family mule that got shot for pilfering a neighbor’s garden, leaving his mother with no way to get to town, no way to pull firewood down from the hills. 

But by adulthood, Creamer had moved on from horses and away from West Virginia. At 24, she was living in Florida with her husband and son—most of a literature degree under her belt and plans to become a novelist—when she had an epiphany. “I love West Virginia, I love it in a crazy, mad, ridiculous way,” she says. She missed her dad; she missed her five siblings. “I had to get back home.” Creamer returned to West Virginia in the waning days of 2006, intending to make a fresh start; instead, she got there just in time to say goodbye. 

It was a rainy January night around 11 p.m. when a fire broke out at the six-story Emmons apartment building in downtown Huntington. Creamer’s 19-year-old brother Ben, 17-year-old sister Angel, and 14-year-old brother Quentin were inside. All three were killed. Sixteen years later, Creamer says the loss is “something you don’t get over.” 

“You can kind of move on. You can kind of forget the person, almost. But what you never ever forget is who you were before it happened,” she tells me, as her painted nails tapped the picnic table. “That’s the selfishness of grief. You don’t forget who you were with those people.” The first year after her siblings’ deaths, Creamer was “a mummy,” but the next year, suddenly, she found herself wanting a horse. 

“It was a piece of being a kid. What did I have as a kid? Those siblings and horses.”

She only wanted one, a horse she could keep on the land she bought outside of town. She turned to Craigslist; it was 2009, a year into the country’s worst recession in a generation, and the online classifieds revealed the grisly fallout. 

“You couldn’t log on there and not see horses starving to death or being given away everywhere,” she says.

“I remember saying ‘someone has to do something about this.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh no. It’s going to be me.’”

Tinia Creamer, Heart of Pheonix

By 2010, Creamer had founded Heart of Phoenix, which she named after one of her first rescues – a neglected horse whose painful hoof condition made her impossible to save. Today, it is one of the largest equine rescue organizations in the world. 

HOP was still a fledgling nonprofit in 2012 when Creamer learned about horses roaming old strip mines. Someone sent her an email with a picture of a horse “that looked like it had been set on fire.” The horse was located in Mingo County, the email said, could she help? When she wrote back asking for the owner’s name and the address, the person explained that the horse lived on the strip mine. Lots of them did, actually.

Even 12 years later, her eyes still get wide recalling this moment. She decided to go see for herself. 

They were out there all right. Herds teeming with emaciated horses, some with hides marred by open wounds and lacerations, nosing for something to eat amid rocks and brush, breeding and in-breeding indiscriminately. Swarming local roadways to lick salt off the pavement. She knew even the healthy-looking horses were likely vitamin-deficient and full of worms. “They’re domestic animals. They are in no way designed to live out there,” she says.

For Creamer – whose grandfather’s very currency was horses, whose father still got misty-eyed about a dead mule, whose own shattered life had been knitted back together by the gentle animals – the scene was surreal, shameful. There was only one thing to do: get these horses off the mountain. 

She went looking for help online, but was instead met with hostility. In person, too, the locals weren’t keen on Creamer—being from the next county over made her an outsider—poking her nose in their business. “People in that part of West Virginia are very protective about what they do,” she says, and what they were doing, most argued, was grazing their horses on land nobody was using, old mines where their fathers and grandfathers had given the best years of their lives. 

Others had grown fond of the herds, riding up the mountain on their ATVs every weekend to offer the animals bread or apples. 

In their opinion, no, Creamer absolutely couldn’t take them off the mountain; these were somebody’s horses. Their horses. Some of them literally, but all of them figuratively. It may seem unreasonable but reason is frequently absent when it comes to our attitudes and actions toward animals. We introduce invasive species to fragile ecosystems, we breed dogs that cannot breathe, we swarm apex predators for the perfect photo. 

We let our proclivity for beauty cloud our better judgment. It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to  Appalachia. We do this, all of us, everywhere.

Creamer wasn’t just coming up against locals’ attachment to their horses, but a pernicious human tendency to confuse profound affection for animals with wisdom about what’s best for them. 

Still, she persisted. She reached out to local politicians, the state’s humane society and the department of agriculture. Some offered sympathy, but nobody offered to help.  

For the next four years, Creamer visited the area often, keeping a catalog of the horses she found. 

In 2014, when the herds had grown into the thousands, it looked like her record-keeping might pay off. She was invited to speak at the annual combined shareholders meeting of the massive, mostly out-of-state land corporations who collectively own huge swaths of southern West Virginia. EPA fines for not meeting reclamation milestones had compelled them to learn more about the feral horses sabotaging their efforts.  

“These were some of the richest people in America,” Creamer thought, people with a vested interest, if not in the health of horses, then at least in the health of the land. She was hopeful they would provide funding for management. For 45 minutes she explained the size and severity of the problem, displaying a slideshow of the photos she had collected, photos of dead, injured, or starving horses.

How much did they care?

“Let me tell you how much,” she says, making a zero with her thumb and forefinger. “Whatever the EPA fined them was not comparable to what this sounded like it would cost. And probably it wasn’t.” 

She couldn’t understand — she still can’t — why people were so unmoved to help, to even admit there was a problem. Couldn’t they see what she saw? 

Feral horses surround a truck on a dirt road in Kentucky. Photo by Kristian Thacker

For a very long time, when people looked at a horse, they more or less saw the same thing: an implement of transportation, agriculture, or war. Domesticated about 6,000 years ago, horses allowed people to move farther and faster than ever before; they tilled fields and drove cattle, they carried men into battle and correspondence across a young country. In West Virginia, pit ponies worked alongside miners, hauling coal out of the bowels of blue mountains.

But the connection between human and horse was never a mere partnership, not the sort of practical arrangement we shared with donkeys or oxen. 

Our relationship with horses was a love story.

We etched them onto rock, painted them in caves and on canvas. We carved them out of marble, wrote classic novels about them. We braided their manes and took them as dance partners, set their likeness on rockers and placed them beside our babies’ cribs.   

Modern machinery, of course, rendered the horse largely redundant. Tractors, trucks, and tanks could do work quicker and more efficiently. But that was hardly the end of the affair. 

Today, only about 1.6 million American households own a horse, which means the rest of us encounter horses in fleeting, fantastical glimpses. Horse-drawn carriages on city streets, Super Bowl commercials with neighing Clydesdales, and a julep-soaked Saturday in May when TVs in bars across the country turn to “the greatest two minutes in sports.” 

These beasts of burden no longer carry actual burdens; instead they bear an arguably heavier load—raw human emotion. Romance, nostalgia, glory. For so-called wild horses, we have reserved our most precious sentiments: those of America itself. 

“They are freedom, they are independence,” reporter David Phillips writes in his book Wild Horse Country. “They are the ragtag misfits defying incredible odds.”

But there are more than a few holes in our mythology. First of all, in the United States there’s no such thing as a wild horse—not genetically, because all horses today are descendants of domesticated stock—and not in any literal sense of the word either. The country’s remaining populations of feral horses don’t defy odds so much as they rely on humans to even the playing field for them. We may no longer need horses, but we certainly like having them around—and have gone to great lengths to make it so. 

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For instance, perhaps the country’s most famous herd of feral horses, Virginia’s Chincoteague Ponies, are carefully tended by a local volunteer fire department, using funds raised in an annual auction of the island’s foals. The 150 or so horses, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s beloved children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, are kept safe from their adoring fans with barbed wire and receive regular, year-round veterinary care. 

On North Carolina’s Outer Banks, herds of feral horses are managed by state and federal agencies as well as a handful of nonprofits. The horses are monitored for diseases and cordoned off from a busy roadway, their populations kept in check through adoptions and sterilization. 

But the powerful emotional connection that compels us to preserve these animals often leads to controversy around what good management means. Out West, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been at odds for decades with activists chronically upset about its handling of the region’s thousands of mustangs. Since the 1970s, in an attempt to maintain equilibrium between land and animal, the agency has rounded up more than 300,000 horses in helicopter-driven spectacles that critics call brutal and inherently inhumane. According to Phillips, “the United States has nearly as many wild horses in captivity as it has in the wild.”

The East Coast herds are also no stranger to conflict. Both the Humane Society and PETA have urged the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department to change or cancel its annual “pony penning,” in which horses are driven to swim across a narrow channel that separates their island from the town. 

Feral horse management isn’t just controversial — it’s also expensive. The BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program has an annual budget of more than $100 million, more than double the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s, and more than 1,000 times Heart of Phoenix’s.

Given the emotion and ambivalence wrapped up in our notions of horses, maybe it’s no surprise that Tinia Creamer’s calls for help were answered with a mute paralysis. And even if a unified vision for handling the horse crisis in Appalachia was to emerge, it wasn’t like there was money to do anything about it. The counties in question are among the poorest and most isolated in the country. Here, locals are waging a multi-front war against addiction, joblessness, and crumbling infrastructure. Feral horses just weren’t on the docket. 

But as the herds grew, grim stories appeared in local papers. Hungry horses chewing the siding off of houses, ripping up landscaping, and causing car accidents. In 2016, three stallions were found shot to death on a decommissioned strip mine in Johnson County, Kentucky. 

And in 2019, 20 horses were shot in Floyd County, Kentucky, the majority pregnant mares, a story that was picked up by the New York Times. The site of the killing was so remote there wasn’t a company the county could pay to remove the carcasses.

Suddenly, a new narrative threatened to calcify — one that warped locals’ long-held affection for the horses into something negligent, even malicious. That’s when efforts emerged to recast the animals into a new role, from ecological crisis to tourist attraction. 

Technically, all feral horses in the United States are descended from domesticated stock. True wild horses no longer exist. Photo by Kristian Thacker

I MET Marsha Thompson, the woman who would introduce me to the “mountain horses of Kentucky” — as the Air BnB experience I booked described them — at the Quicksand Fire Station in Breathitt County. It had been just two months since the summer’s catastrophic floods killed 46 people across six counties in Eastern Kentucky, including Breathitt, in an event the National Weather Service called “historically unheard of.” On a Saturday in September, families were still arriving at the fire station to pick up food and packages of bottled water. 

Thompson was in mid-recovery herself; she and her dogs were staying with her pastor while repairs were made on her house, which was inundated with eight feet of water during the disaster. It’s the second time in two years her home has flooded, but she has no plans to relocate.  

As we inched our way up the mountain in her Toyota Rav4, Thompson was ready with stories about the area’s history as well as her own as a “horse-crazy” girl growing up in Iowa. A retired nurse who’s lived in the county for 40 years, Thompson had a friend who grazed his horses on the old mine above town, but she didn’t realize how many animals lived up there until she started volunteering with the Appalachian Horse Project.

Founded in 2016, AHP is led by Ginny Grulke, the former executive director of the Kentucky Horse Council, a nonprofit dedicated to the state’s equine community. She was serving in that capacity in 2014 when the governor’s office reached out to see if she might know what to do about the feral horses in Eastern Kentucky. The animals were becoming a nuisance, waylaying coal companies’ half-hearted reclamation efforts and overgrazing the land. But the investigative committee formed to find a solution was hamstrung; the state didn’t want to invest money in managing the horses, and the alternatives would create bad press. 

“We have a national reputation as [the] horse capital of the world,” Grulke says. “The last thing we wanted to do was round up horses and euthanize them.” And there was another challenge: the free-roaming horses were beloved, and visiting them was a popular and pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

“We thought we had a negative situation we had to contain, but that flipped pretty quickly,” Grulke remembers. “Instead we thought maybe this could actually be an opportunity to benefit the community.” So AHP put a formal name on an effort already underway, working with locals who had been cataloging and caring for the horses for years, just as Creamer was in West Virginia. In 2019, AHP started offering tours as a way to raise money to care for the horses and encourage economic activity in a county where a third of residents live below the poverty line.  

It wasn’t a completely novel idea. Not only is horse tourism big business in other parts of the country but investing in large, charismatic animals has worked in Kentucky before. Between 1997 and 2002, the state reintroduced about 1,500 elk—a long-extinct native animal—onto former strip mines in the same part of the state. Today the herd numbers in the thousands and activities like elk-watching and hunting have created hundreds of jobs and provided a modest but meaningful infusion of cash into a local economy that desperately needed it. Elsewhere in Appalachia, strip mines had been creatively repurposed into tourism-generating campgrounds and ATV parks.

Thompson and I stepped out of her SUV at a site with all three—a campground, an ATV park, and an elk-viewing station. It’s been more than 30 years since mining wrapped up at Southfork Elk View Recreational Area. From the rusty lookout at the apex of the park, Thompson showed me the dramatic impact mining had on the land. We looked north and saw some of the oldest mountains in the world. We looked west and saw the landscape ironed flat, mountaintops missing and valleys filled in, all of it wrapped in dusty coal-hauling roads that today host scores of ATVs. Their whining engines were a soundtrack of the afternoon.  

Five minutes later we’d taken one of those roads into the heart of the park, where we found two AHP volunteers — Shauneece Brandenburg, holding a spent deworming syringe, and Deronda Southard, holding a camera — and a group of 10 or so horses. 

Renegade was the first horse I met. The color of black coffee, his mane was so choked with burrs that it was twisted into green dreadlocks. I arrived unarmed with snacks, but he frisked me anyway – my fingers, my phone, my notebook, my hair – with a nose soft like flower petals. I was delighted by his presence but also a little wary; Renegade was all hulking, twitching muscles.

“He’s chilling out,” Brandenburg says, as if she’s sensed my reticence. “His hormone levels are dropping.” The women explained that Renegade was one of seven stallions castrated in AHP’s spring gelding clinic. There are about 500 free-roaming horses in Breathitt County and getting the population under control is the organization’s biggest challenge, made apparent by the number of pregnant mares that amble up to us as we talk. 

Brandenburg and Southard know each of these horses well, and visit every weekend —  for 12 and 7 years, respectively — delivering mineral blocks and hay, tracking each animal’s development and health like some people monitor their fantasy football teams. AHP volunteers were the first to arrive after the floods. If they hadn’t, Brandenburg says, “there would be a lot of dead horses up here.”

Many of the horses on this mountain technically belong to someone, but that doesn’t matter to them. 

“They’re my horses. They’re—every one—mine.” Southard says, joking but not really. “I don’t care who they belong to. And Shauneece will say they’re hers.”

“We’re lucky to have them,” Brandenburg adds. 

Soon, more cars arrived, a combination of volunteers and visitors, and suddenly the pasture around us was filled with dozens of horses. They walked, trotted, and galloped through stands of chicory and thistle, arriving from every direction, knowing by now that the crunch of tires meant food. They were rewarded with carrots and cookies and popcorn held out on outstretched hands beneath adoring faces. The scene was chaotic: foals whinnied for their mothers and stallions scrapped over space while the women hollered back and forth about who was looking better than last time, who needed extra attention.  

It was beautiful and beguiling and standing there I was filled with questions. Is this safe for humans? Is it right for horses? Could tourism really be the way to solve this crisis?  

Even Tinia Creamer, who for years argued against using the horses as tourist attractions, has softened her stance on the issue. “There is some value in glamorizing them because it would make them valuable.” She says that as successive generations are born feral, they’re getting better at facing the elements.  

“But it’s a wonderful life until it isn’t,” she warns. “There’s not a single horse out there that stays in that life. It can look like the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. But next year, it could be emaciated, leg broken, hit by a car.” And just because a horse looks healthy doesn’t mean it is. Creamer says most of the horses HOP has rescued from strip mines were malnourished, full of parasites and decaying teeth. 

“The land looks lush and green, but it’s mostly actually weeds,” she says. “The water sources are all toxic. They don’t like you to say that around here, but they are.”

After a decade-plus of inaction on the parts of state governments and land companies, Creamer now thinks tourism could be a last-ditch avenue for management, with the right precautions. 

“It’s not a hopeless situation with proper intervention. But until you see it and you know this area and the land and the whole story, it’s impossible to give me a solution.”

A visit to Kentucky demonstrates why locals feel so strongly about these horses, beings also forging lives on the literal scraps of the coal industry, making do with little, surviving in places others have written off. 

Driving up and down the mountain was its own tour, the aftermath of industrial abandonment and natural disaster. Tree branches filled with things that belong in houses: a comforter, a dresser, a race car bed, and houses emptied or stripped to the studs, mountains of wet belongings piled in front yards. Beside many homes sat tents, neon oranges and reds that stood out against the green hillside.

“They’ve lost so much already,” Thompson says of those living in tents. “They’re worried if they leave, someone will come and steal the little bit they have left.”

Ragtag misfits defying incredible odds. David Phillips was describing mustangs when he wrote that line, but the same could be said about the people of Appalachia. As I watched the small crew on a mountaintop admiring seemingly irrepressible animals and another small crew in the valley clearing furniture from a creek that will surely flood again, the two scenes called to mind something else Phillips wrote about the wild horses of our imagination: 

“They are what we tell ourselves we are, and what we aspire to be.” 

Soon after arriving at the rescue, Phoebe went from a starving, “pathetic” horse weeks from death to a quirky, curious animal, according to Creamer. “A big dork with gigantic ears.” She grew until she was 17 hands at the shoulder — about five feet, seven inches – a size to match her gigantic ears. 

After a year in rescue, Phoebe went to stay with Adam Black, a horse trainer outside Columbus, Ohio. For 100 days, he worked to get Phoebe ready for HOP’s annual competition and adoption event, the Appalachian Trainer Face Off, in which previously unhandled animals are transformed by volunteer trainers into adoptable, ready-to-take-home horses. 

Black says working with feral horses presents unique challenges. “They’re hypersensitive to body language, eye contact, how you face them,” he explains. “It’s that predator-prey mentality. Years of survival have taught them that.” For the first few weeks in Black’s care, Phoebe’s past as a feral horse was on full display. “She was very concerned with her personal bubble,” he remembers, “she wasn’t convinced she needed people in her life.”

Eventually, Phoebe relaxed, her “mule-y, long ears” softened, and Black could slip a harness over her nose. Then a lead. Then a saddle. Then a rider. Then a rider with a pistol who shot balloons while Phoebe dashed confidently. She met dogs and cattle and kids and went for long trail rides at crowded parks. 

Phoebe finished third at the event, and was adopted by Lisa Quinlan, a 57-year old bookkeeper and longtime horse owner who lives outside Akron. Among Quinlan’s other two horses, Phoebe asserted her dominance. A fearsome kick allowed her to establish a new pecking order. The mare once rejected by her band is now the “top notch girl in the field, the head horse.” 

With the humans, though, Phoebe was slower to acclimate, aloof and difficult to catch. When Quinlan initially tried to pet her or put her on a lead, Phoebe would just walk away. “She was a tough nut.” Quinlan recalls. 

It took about a year, but now when Quinlan walks out into the field, the giant horse with big ears comes running. When she sees her owner at the fence line, Phoebe lets out a contented whinny. “She really likes us,” Quinlan says with a smile that comes through the phone. “She wants us to be a part of her herd.”

Five years after she wandered into a good Samaritan’s backyard, Phoebe has exactly what she came down the mountain to find. 

But thousands more just like her remain.

Ashley Stimpson

Ashley Stimpson (she/her) is a freelance journalist based in Maryland. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Nat Geo, WIRED, Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream, and elsewhere. She is a staff writer for Belt Magazine.

This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. All photos by Kristian Thacker for The Sunday Long Read. Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.