Curtis Bostic is an attorney, a politician and — for a few weeks in 2016 — an accused horse thief.
On a cold December day in the rugged hilltops of Breathitt County, Bostic was trying to rescue some horses he said had been abandoned and were malnourished. But he was arrested by a sheriff's deputy, who said the horses belonged to two men who follow the local custom of setting them free in the winter to wander the wilderness of the county's abandoned coal fields.
The charges were later dismissed after the sheriff's department said it didn't have probable cause to make the arrest. But during the night Bostic spent in jail, he came up with an idea: A few weeks later, he leased the land where he had been arrested. He sent a letter to the two men who had pressed charges against him. Now, they were the trespassers, and Bostic ordered them to come get their horses before he put them up for adoption.
"I can't change the full county. But I can say you are not going to come to my property and drop your horse off in the cold winter," Bostic said.
Bostic wants to turn 4,000 acres of former coal mines into a horse sanctuary. It's the latest idea on how to tackle the growing horse population in the mountains of Kentucky, a state known more for pampered thoroughbreds on pristine farms than bony horses roaming free.
Bostic's descriptions of thousands of horses suffering at the hands of cruel owners have offended the locals who say he doesn't understand their culture.
Clifton Hudson, 30, owns five horses that he sets free to wander land he doesn't own near his home in Breathitt County. He said he provides 600 pounds of salt each month for the horses. He stopped hauling hay bales to the land because the horses were not eating them, a sign he says means they have plenty of grass to graze. The locals often bring their children to the mountains on the weekends to pet and feed the horses.
U.S. & World
"It's just really it's more of a pastime than anything else with the people of the county," Hudson said. "So far the only person really had an issue with it has been Mr. Bostic."
Wild horses have been a familiar sight in the Kentucky mountains for decades. But following the Great Recession and the thousands of jobs lost because of the disappearing coal industry, more horses have been set loose.
Just how many and whether they have enough food is up for debate.
Dumas Rescue, a local animal rescue organization, told a legislative committee last fall that Floyd County alone had 1,000 horses. Owner Tonya Conn said they took in 22 horses last year but had to turn away requests for 100 others.
"Some of them have never been touched by human hands," she said.
Debby Spencer, a board member for the Appalachian Horse Center, said Floyd County has just 44 free-roaming horses, based on a census she conducted in 2014 across nine eastern Kentucky counties. She found 440 horses in eight of them, a number she said has since grown to 584.
"There is more than enough food up there," Spencer said.
Bostic lives in South Carolina, where he's a former member of the Charleston County Council and once ran for Congress, losing to former Gov. Mark Sanford in a 2013 primary. He's the general counsel for Kinzer Drilling Co., which owns the land Bostic has leased. He and his wife run an orphanage in Burma and own a private retreat in Charleston that has horses.
"We kind of enjoy being saviors of the world," he said.
But some don't see it that way. Hudson said a lot of owners will breed their horses in the wild, collecting and selling the offspring for side income. Bostic's lease threatens to disrupt that practice.
Breeding of free-roaming horses is tricky. Male horses, once banned from free-ranging based on an unwritten rule among local owners, are running free and mating with female horses without owners' knowledge. In September, Johnson County sheriff's deputies discovered 20 to 30 horses at a former coal mine. Three of the horses, all males, had been shot in the head.
"It looked like they were trying to thin the herd by killing the males," Deputy Terry Tussey said. "It's still an open case. We never found out anything."
Animal aid groups have hosted free gelding clinics in eastern Kentucky, but they depend on owners bringing their horses — and many lack resources to do so.
Local government leaders see the herds of wild horses galloping through the mountains and dream of tourists flocking to watch them. Such efforts have worked elsewhere, including ponies on Assateague Island in Virginia and mustangs at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota. But in Kentucky, a group trying to build the Appalachian Horse Center in Breathitt County has struggled to raise money.
The group has land not far from where Bostic was arrested. It plans to build a visitor center, offer guided tours and treat people with equine-assisted therapy. Local leaders hoped the group would partner with Bostic. But Bostic isn't interested in tourism.
"I don't know how that would ever work," he said. "What I want to do is help the animals that are here."