HAMPTON TOWNSHIP, NJ - When 14-year-old Tank, a part warm-blood draft horse, was rescued by Diane Romano a few years ago, he was 350 pounds underweight, with a bacterial infection in his hooves from standing day in and day out for prolonged periods in mucky ground.
"He's such a gentle soul, he's such a good boy," said Romano, scratching the giant horse's belly as she speaks.
Romano, who originally hailed from East Hanover, NJ, has been caring for horses since she was a young girl.
"I have rehabbed a lot of horses, I know their nutritional needs," said Romano as she patted Tank.
Tank had ironically been rescued by his previous owners, when Romano came to his rescue.
"He was not cared for," Romano continued. "They [the previous owners] had good intentions, but they went to the wayside. They didn't know how to feed him."
After taking in 38 horses (on top of a few horses she owns herself), rescuing them from lives of abuse, beatings, starvation, neglect, and the possibility of slaughter, it is Romano's non-profit 501c(3) organization, River's Edge Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, that is now in need of rescue.
An integral part of her 221-acre property was damaged by last year's Hurricane Irene, when waters from the Paulinskill Lake River rose over the bank, and destroyed her riding ring. The riding ring was used to exercise the horses, as well as to contain groups of children and adults who visit the facility for riding lessons, pony rides, and trail rides.
"I'm very safety conscious," Romano explained. "Everywhere there are rocks [in the riding ring since the storm], and the horses could get hurt."
Where there were once topsoil, topcoat and footings, all were washed away. And the riding arena fence, which was once taut, separated from the poles. In the surrounding area where there was once healthy grass, weeds and seeds washed up from the river.
"The arena is not safe to use as a holding pen," Romano said.
"Sussex County is nothing but rock," said Romano, as she took The Alternative Press on an exclusive tour of her property, and within the now defunct riding ring. "Every time it rains, it brings more rocks to the surface."
On the day of the hurricane, the river, which Romano described as normally, "comforting and calm", was rushing by at approximately 50 miles per hour. Romano was amazed a bridge over the river did not come down, and attributes it to its approximate age of 60 years old, when bridge construction was more sturdy. The water rose up to the barn, and although it did not enter inside, it lapped against the exterior side overlooking the river, reaching a height of about four feet. It was necessary to evacuate, and temporarily relocate the horses during the storm.
"When the hurricane came through, it was like a storm story on TV," Romano recalled.
The hurricane left behind deep craters and rocks in the riding ring, which volunteers helped, and continue to help remove rocks.
"This is totally dangerous," Romano said, as she pointed out spots with rocky patches during the interview, still cropping up nearly a year later.
Additionally, some of her boarders pulled out their horses after the storm, hearing of the barn's near-brush with water.
And despite an insurance policy with premium payments around $13,000 a year, neither the insurance nor FEMA covered the damages.
"I'm pretty sick over that," Romano said.
Romano said professional assistance with large machinery to resoil, and repack the ground of the riding arena, as well as to repair and replace the fencing, will be required.
Add in the cost to feed all the horses, which Romano said can vary by their ages, and sizes. Romano is footing the expenses out of her own pocket.
"It is about $7,000 a month to feed everybody," Romano said. "no matter what I do, I have to feed these horses. There is no cutting corners."
She said feed for the average horse runs around $160 a month. A 50-pound bag of grain costs $40 per bag. Most of her horses consume around a half a bail of hay a day. And the tab to feed a giant like Tank runs $14 daily.
Romano said the rescue goes through approximately 9,000 bails of hay in the winters alone.
The boarders, trail rides, pony rides, riding ring, and riding lessons helped to bring in revenue to support the not-for-profit horse rescue, and defray its costs.
But Romano may not be able to continue the work she does for the horses because of the ripple effect of financial difficulties Hurricane Irene manifested for her property, and in turn, for her horse rescue.
"I'm hoping down the line to continue doing what I'm doing, and for this to be a habitat for people," Romano said.
She likened her property to "heaven on earth" for horses. And people who visit as well, relish in the property's peacefulness, many having told Romano time spent there with the horses is "therapeutic".
Romano gets calls "all the time", she said, with requests from individuals asking her especially to take in older horses, within the 23 to 25 year age group. Many do not realize, she said, the life span of a horse and responsibilities involved when they take one in, and they can live in excess of 25 years or more. Romano said ponies tend to live longer.
Two of her rescues, Ginger and Dreamer, are 30 and 33 years old, respectively.
Feeding senior horses can run up to $500 a month alone in terms of supplements, hay, and alfalfa pellets. There is more food preparation required, Romano said, to wet down the food for senior horses so that it is palatable, and easier for them to digest. Romano said as horses age, their teeth become rounded, and because they chew in a circular side-to-side motion, the food balls up in their cheeks. If the food is not chewed, it is not digested well, Romano said.
In addition to Tank, Ginger, and Dreamer, there are other horses who quietly dot the further expanses of her pastures, grazing in a place they can now call home, as well as "sanctuary".
Some were horses forgotten about and left behind, such as Rodeo (named after Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, CA), who suffered from rain rot because her delicate legs were immersed up to her knees in manure, and she was not cared for. A teary-eyed Romano quietly asked Rodeo's former owners to please go inside their home as she removed the horse from the property. The site of Rodeo's condition,whose knees were knocking from being outdoors in consistently chilly temperatures as well, was extremely upsetting to Romano.
Today, Rodeo is a healthy horse, and her legs are recovered. She enjoys frolicking at the sanctuary with another young horse named Kai.
Rita was another horse rehabilitated by Romano on her property. In Rita's previous situation, her legs were wet to the point they were swelled up. And today due to the rehabilitation she received at River's Edge Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, Rita is once again healthy.
Rita is not just any horse. She descended from the famous Man o' War, the famous Thoroughbred race horse. In spite of her legendary bloodlines, Rita was neglected before Romano stepped in.
"I thought I could do it alone," said Romano in terms of her horse rescue and sanctuary being self-sufficient prior to the weather disaster. "It's not a perfect world, and things happen."
Romano hopes members of the public, or even corporations or other organizations, can come to the aid of River's Edge Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, whether through financial donations, or in-kind services. She estimated the repairs to the riding ring could cost around $15,000.
Romano said anyone interested is welcome to tour the facility and visit with the horses, to know where the money goes to care for them.
"I keep fighting, and praying, and fighting and praying," Romano said. "There's got to be someone who can help us with our plight. Nothing worth fighting for was ever easy."
If interested in more information or making a tax-deductible donation, click here
to go to River's Edge Horse Rescue and Sanctuary's website.