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When most people think of Kentucky and horses, the images that typically come to mind are of regal thoroughbreds, the scenic farms that ring Lexington, and the annual Kentucky Derby.

But that’s not the whole story.

Kentucky and its love affair with horses reaches even deeper into history and into mountainous eastern Kentucky, where settlers and their gaited saddled horses – known at the time as “Kentucky Saddlers” – forged a vital partnership. These horses plowed fields and served as the preferred mounts of many farmers, circuit riders, pack horse librarians and Frontier Nursing Service nurses.

Now, the Appalachian Equine Project at Eastern Kentucky University, with the help of a grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission and in collaboration with Wells College of Aurora, New York, is shining new light on the subject, recording and preserving oral histories from members of the Kentucky mountain horse community.

“Our collection illuminates the historical and cultural significance of these horses in particular, and the intricate relationships among people, animals and place more generally,” said Dr. Stephanie McSpirit, Foundation professor of sociology at EKU, supervising the project along with Neil Kasiak, oral historian with the William H. Berge Oral History Center at EKU. “These oral histories document the struggle – past and present – to preserve an important part of Kentucky history, the Kentucky mountain horse.”

Chad Cogdill, associate professor in EKU’s Department of Communication, will oversee the video-taping of approximately 20 interviews this summer and fall. “Having Chad’s media expertise in the collection phase of these oral histories will ensure that these interviews are high quality, and could potentially be used in our planned next phase of producing a video documentary for possible airing on KET that tells the story of the people and history behind the Kentucky Saddler.”

EKU students Ashley Albano and Robin Martinez, both animal studies majors, and Tabitha Foster, a graduate student in biology, will be involved in the project this summer. In addition, Dr. Daniel Renfrow, an EKU grad and now an associate professor of sociology at Wells College, received an internal grant at Wells and will bring students to assist the EKU team.

With support from the Kentucky Oral History Commission, an EKU team also collected oral histories in 2016-17. “We have already learned much about the important role these horses played in the early mountain economy and the daily life of subsistence farmers,” McSpirit noted. “These multipurpose horses plowed fields through the week and carried their human families to the general store for trade and to church for worship on Sundays.”

Partly as the result of the earlier oral history project, Gov. Matt Bevin proclaimed July 2017 as Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Month. The announcement received considerable fanfare when it was made at the first Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse show of the season, which was held on Derby Day at the Kentucky Horse Park.

"That event signified the repositioning of how our equine culture is perceived and represented across the Commonwealth,” McSpirit said, “but there is still so much work to be done.”