Flood relief teams rely on horses to reach survivors stranded in eastern Kentucky

Hazard, Kentucky (September 2, 2022) – It’s a phrase made famous by beloved TV host Fred Rogers: “Look out for helpers.”

For the many people stranded in their confined homes in the hills of eastern Kentucky following disastrous floods in July, some “helpers” have arrived on four legs.

“(These people) haven’t seen another human being in two days,” said local horse trainer Hunter Stidham.

Stidham is one of several members of the Breathitt Horseman’s Association who knew they could help as they watched their community grapple with the effects of the flood.

“They actually told us they didn’t think we were going to get to some of these places on horseback,” Stidham said. “We did it.”

One house that was cut out from everything else – by washed-out canals and roads plus mudslides going everywhere – was home to a newborn baby.

“The baby was only a few weeks old, and we were able to get the baby supplies and bottled water for them,” Stidham said.

SUVs, side-by-sides, and SUVs have not yet made it through in many areas, leaving dozens of eastern Kentuckians—many without electricity and running water—without any outside access to necessities or sanctuary.

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April Stamper has lived in the Buckhorn community in Perry County her entire life. She is the school nurse and has been doing everything she can to help in the aftermath of wiping out parts of her hometown.

At that point, Stamper was helping run what she calls a small aid station for people to come to if they got any cuts or injuries trying to get out of the floodwaters. But they soon realize that not many people can reach them.

“We didn’t even start cleaning up. It was just survival. Everyone was trying to get what they needed,” Stamper said. “Then Hunter and his friends showed up when there were almost no roads to travel on.”

The team of assistants continued to grow. They collected sacks of food and other necessities for Stidham and the other knights on horseback to deliver to those who were stranded.

“On the first day we rode about 30 miles,” said Stidham. “We went up in hunters where there is no way in or out… except on horseback.”

While delivering supplies, horse teams can also check and note down specific things – such as medicine – that people need.

Key Douthitt from UK HealthCare has helped coordinate a lot of the moving parts while also providing care as Medical Director at the North Fork Valley Clinic in Hazard.

“I’m trying to focus on the medical side of things, knowing there are others helping to get needed supplies together, and figuring out how we’re going to get essentials to those stuck in their homes,” Duthette said. “Together, we take care of the whole person.”

Meanwhile, Stamper and other healthcare workers were trying to get tetanus shots to those who were in the floodwaters. They have been able to get to some people on ATVs, even if that required going as far as possible on the ATV and then doing the rest of the trip on foot. Temporary vaccination clinics have also popped up across the region for those who can get out of their homes.

“Everyone was in shock. This had never happened before and we couldn’t believe what we were in the middle of,” Stamper said. “It showed up complete strangers. They’d say ‘I’m a nurse, I can help give injections.’” Or those without a healthcare background still wanted help and did things like unload trucks and pallets with water. It was just something everyone should be able to do. And the kids, the younger generation…they were amazing.”

At 18, Stidham falls into that category. He took what he knew best – horses – and found a way to help. “We have horses, so why not use them?” He said. “We knew we could help people by using them.”

Leaders at the UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment say they are proud of the actions of Stidham and other members of the Knights’ Association, which is part of the Breathitt County Cooperative Extension.

“It really warms your heart. They put projects in their lives aside to help others in need,” said Breathitt County Extension Agent Reed Graham. “Horses are a wonderful mode of transportation, and they always have been. They can often navigate difficult terrain while maintaining balance and carrying very heavy loads. This can go a long way in providing essential services to people who are otherwise cut off from the outside world.”

In addition to helping haul supplies, Graham says members have been riding free horses for community members while they get their lives back in order. “The Breathitt County Horseman’s Association is an amazing group, and they have really been there for the community in need,” Graham said.

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As the weeks go by, the assistants’ stories and creativity continue to add up. Like teams trudging through difficult hillsides with horses and packing mules or making it through a wet road in a jeep, or a pulley system rigged to get needed medicines across a swollen creek has swept away all the bridges.

Some aides came on horseback, some came with nursing backgrounds, some came with ATVs, and some came with force to haul supplies. They all came with a desire to help wherever and however they could.

“After everything our employees have been through, it’s the least we can do,” Douthitt said.

“Sometimes it was like a nightmare, and you kept coming back every day,” Stamper said. “There was no question of going back, or even any time to grieve or worry. It just happened, and everyone just pulled together to move forward each day.”

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