SOMERSET, Ky. — A hero horse — the majestic work of a Lexington artist that celebrates the American story of Horse Soldier Bourbon — has returned home to Somerset.
“A Hero Horse Returns Home” is the title of Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl’s work, one of more than 160 full-size horses created for the LexArts public art initiative Horse Mania. Initially sponsored and commissioned by Horse Soldier Bourbon and later purchased by the Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA), the horse is “a wonderful representation of Somerset and the Lake Cumberland region,” said Chris Girdler, SPEDA president and CEO. It honors the Horse Soldiers and their heroic effort to fight terrorism, Girdler said, while also representing SPEDA’s mission to grow the local economy by improving quality of life and supporting arts and cultural endeavors.
The horse now sits in the lobby of the Somerset Energy Center, where in 2019, SPEDA and the City of Somerset announced to a standing-room-only crowd that Horse Soldier Bourbon would build a distillery in this community.
“This horse was a perfect fit for our community, as it represents so much of who we are — Lake Cumberland, Somerset-Pulaski County, the Appalachian region of Kentucky, the bourbon and horse racing industries — along with SPEDA’s effort to utilize the arts to promote community collaboration and bridge the urban-rural divide in Kentucky,” Girdler said. “I couldn’t think of a better place to temporarily display it than in the Energy Center lobby, where our story with Horse Soldier began.”
From a regional call for art, more than 200 artists submitted more than 400 designs for Horse Mania 2022, the third such event — the first two in 2000 and 2010 — that has raised money for LexArts grants and partner organizations. Sponsors, like Horse Soldier Bourbon, were invited to review design proposals and choose their favorite. The finished horses were on display throughout Lexington from mid-June through Breeders’ Cup 2022 and later auctioned at the world-famous Keeneland Sales Pavilion.
The story of the Horse Soldiers, a small group of U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets that entered Afghanistan on horseback in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, served as Cerel-Suhl’s inspiration. Their clandestine mission marked the first time U.S. troops rode to war on horseback since World War II, and the 2018 action war drama film 12 Strong is based on their story.
Cerel-Suhl has a family connection to a different Special Forces group that served after the Horse Soldiers, but “I have great respect for all of them,” she said.
“My dad is also a proud Air Force veteran, and my husband and I work at the Lexington VA. So, doing a veteran-themed horse had great personal meaning to me,” Cerel-Suhl said.
“A Hero Horse,” tells the visual story of the Horse Soldiers who, upon retiring from the military, traveled the world and discovered a passion for making bourbon. From that experience, they determined their legacy would be to create a product that infuses patriotism with one of Kentucky’s signature industries. Coming home to make bourbon in Kentucky, where their military story began training on the banks of the Cumberland River, would be the next chapter — and they selected Somerset-Pulaski County as the home for their 225-acre, $200 million bourbon distillery experience.
The horse took Cerel-Suhl — an artist, physician and community advocate who studied visual arts from an early age before attending medical school — six weeks to paint. Every detail in the horse was planned ahead of her submission to the LexArts competition: The waving American flag, the bourbon barrel symbolizing one of Kentucky’s signature industries, the bourbon that flows down the horse’s tail, “glimmering copper, orange and gold in the evening light like bourbon in a glass,” she said.
The silver front legs symbolize the steel from the towers at Ground Zero; the copper back legs represent the classic Vendome stills used by Horse Soldier Bourbon. On the other side of the horse, its harness features the horse’s name in 16 letters, like a traditional thoroughbred.
On the horse’s front quarters is a depiction of “America’s Response,” a statue unveiled in 2011 at Ground Zero in New York City commemorating the Horse Soldiers’ historical mission. The horse’s middle section represents the Lake Cumberland region — a silhouette of Lake Cumberland with a houseboat floating on it, a marker for the city of Somerset and a silhouette of the Cumberland River, where the Horse Soldiers were training when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers.
Finally, on the horse’s hindquarters are the foothills of Appalachia, with the sunset reflected on the western peaks. On this side of the horse, the tail represents the golden and orange sunset, Cerel-Suhl said, and the Kentucky state butterfly, the Viceroy, flutters up from the grass.
“A Hero Horse Returns Home” can be viewed in the Somerset Energy Center lobby, where other local art pieces are displayed. SPEDA is considering alternate locations to display the horse until its final home is selected.