By JESSICA NICOSIA
For the Recorder
TOWN OF FLORIDA -- Nina Bellinger is used to throwing fundraisers for her Easy Street Horse Rescue on Langley Road, but her upcoming "Celebrate the Horse" event on April 28 has a special significance.
The event marks a little more than one year since Bellinger took in 15 malnourished, parasite-infested, untrained horses seized from a farm in Sprakers on March 22, 2012. The event will showcase three of the recovered horses and the foal born from one of the seized mares.
Before and after pictures of the horses, demonstrations, horse rides, vendors, refreshments, and a tack sale will fill the day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m at the John J. Zaparesky Farm, 185 Plantz Road, Johnstown.
Terry and Scott Silverman, who own the John J. Zaparesky Farm, took in two pregnant mares from the March seizure.
Two horses taken from the Sprakers farm had to be euthanized because they were too sick to recover: a yearling named Joy and a male horse named Ulysses. But six horses, including two foals that were born after coming to the rescue, have been adopted to "forever homes."
Eight more are healthy and ready to be adopted and one is still on the road to recovery.
The case against the horses' former owner, Carl L. Vitale, 51, has been handed up from Root Town Court to Montgomery County District Attorney James "Jed" Conboy. Vitale was charged in April 2012 with 15 misdemeanors, four violations and two felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals. The felonies have since been withdrawn and replaced with misdemeanors by the district attorney.
The case against Vitale is still pending, according to Judge Thomas Eriksen.
New York state troopers contacted Bellinger after the seizure to take the 15 horses, which proved one of the most challenging undertakings she has faced with the rescue.
"The trooper when he first called me said there was one stallion, 14 mares. It ended up being seven stallions, eight mares," Bellinger said.
Bellinger explained that stallions will fight if they are kept together, even if they are separated by a fence, so the two dozen volunteers that came to help after the seizure had to create separate living spaces for the seven stallions.
"The community definitely came out to help with these horses," said Bellinger.
Tom and Katie Hastings are a father-daughter team of volunteers who have been coming every Monday and Thursday since they heard about the seizure to take care of the horses.
"I didn't expect them to be as bad as they were," said Tom. "The first night we were there ... the youngest horse was just a foal, Joy. And she was so weak, it took three of us to pick her up.
"It was so sad to see that she was skin and bones and so weak. They tried as best they could to save her but ... they had to put her down. And I was quite shocked."
Tom referenced the "enormity of the responsibility" the rescue takes on and said the experience with the seized horses last year showed him that his help was needed.
"They're all heavier, they're all friskier, they're all alive now," he added.
"Who knows what would have happened to them [without the rescue]?" said Katie.
Bellinger, who has a full-time job apart from the rescue, would have a hard time keeping up with the daily work without the help of volunteers. Volunteers come each day and work from a list Nina leaves for them.
There are currently 22 active volunteers for the 11 horses on the farm. Nina always has something for volunteers to do, from caring for the horses to preparing for fundraisers to office work like maintaining the website and social media pages.
Samantha Baurle, 17, is a junior in high school who has volunteered at the rescue since December 2012. She helps out by recruiting volunteers, advertising for donations, and taking care of the horses, and her father is in charge of any carpentry projects at the rescue.
Baurle was able to see the horses overcoming their health problems since she started.
"Just having that experience made me want to keep doing it. And just seeing the improvement in those horses, it feels good to be a part of that."
Baurle is helping out with the fundraiser on April 28, which will raise money for the horses' yearly vaccinations which will total more than $1000. She is also soliciting more volunteers and hay donations, which are always needed.
Bellinger started the Easy Street Horse Rescue after hearing about a racehorse that was sent to a slaughterhouse when his owners found out he had genetic problems rendering him useless for breeding. She heard the story from a woman who tried to buy the horse before he was killed.
"It's horrible, it's really, really horrible," said Bellinger. Stories like that one combined with Bellinger's lifelong dream of having a farm with horses inspired her to start a rescue. Her MBA in entrepreneurship and background in accounting helped her in setting up the 501c3 nonprofit in July 2006 so that all donations are tax-exempt.
Over the years, Bellinger has taken in more than 80 horses, some of them from large seizures like the one last March. The goal is to find "forever homes" for the horses with suitable owners.
"I'm really picky when they do get adopted," said Bellinger. "I have strict guidelines. We do site checks, we check references, we watch [the prospective owners] interact with the horses, and we try to keep up with where [the horses] are."
"A horse is a big investment ... so it's a decision you need to make slowly."
Bellinger remembers three times where the horse has chosen the person, what she calls a rare occurrence. She often receives pictures of the new owners with their horses, thanking her for matching them up.
"It might (take) us an extra three months to find the right person, but when you do, they stay happy and they stay together."
People can donate by making a check payable to the Easy Street Horse Rescue at 109 Langley Road, Amsterdam or via PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Vendors can register for the April 28 event, which will go on rain or shine, by contacting JinaMyers@live.com or calling (518) 649-0084.