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Vineyard yields more than wine as it rescues horses

Sharon Rubin Levine, co-founder at BHF Horse Rescue,

Sharon Rubin Levine, co-founder at BHF Horse Rescue, embraces Lardeo, saved from slaughter. Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard in Baiting Hollow is home to rescued horses that were facing abuse and slaughter. Credit: Randee Daddona

Wine and whinnies may seem like an odd pairing, but that's pretty much the norm at Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, which is also home to Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue, a sanctuary for needy equines who've literally found greener pastures.

The business and the nonprofit both opened in 2007 -- the tasting room in September, followed in October by the nonprofit with three rescued horses: Angel, a thoroughbred filly; Prince, a retired standardbred harness racer; and Mirage, an Arabian mare. All three had been destined for slaughter when Sharon Rubin Levine, of Commack, and her older brother Richard Rubin, of Port Jefferson, found out about them.

Baiting Hollow has taken in at least two dozen horses since then, though Levine didn't intend to go down that path.

"All of a sudden I started getting emails about horse slaughter from the Humane Society, the ASPCA, and I started doing research," she said. "I was horrified, and I couldn't believe it because we don't consume horses in this country," she said.

That's true, but according to the Humane Society of the United States, every year about 100,000 horses -- former racehorses, companion horses, ponies, work horses -- are purchased at public livestock auctions across the country and then sent to Canada or Mexico and killed. The meat is then sold and consumed in other countries.

Federal efforts are under way to permanently ban the export of horses for slaughter through the proposed Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act.

Despite learning this, the siblings still knew virtually nothing about the care of horses. Still, Levine and her brother decided to put to good use the empty barn on their property. Their late father, Samuel, had purchased about 3 acres in Baiting Hollow in 1988 and had been cultivating a small vineyard there as a hobby. Eventually, he purchased more land, and the property now covers 17 acres, providing ample room for growing grapes and nurturing animals.

Today, visitors can sip wine in the tasting room, or sit outside and listen to live entertainment in full view of the sanctuary's horses.

The 27 indoor stalls, each featuring a plaque with the horse's name and a brief bio, are immaculate. Twelve pens are outdoors, with ample space for ponies and miniature horses to roam. Rubin said the spaces were designed to feel open so the horses can see each other.

Levine gives tours of the sanctuary on request, and on any given day ponies, miniature horses or full-grown ones can be found in their stalls or pens, socializing with each other, or being groomed or fed by staffer Kim Kelly. One may come upon trainer Cliff Schadt and his equine pupil, or volunteer Kim Rivera riding a couple of horses that need to exercise.

The costs of caring

Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue is one of about 600 equine rescue operations in the United States, each on average housing 20 horses at any given time, according to Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States, which is based in Washington, D.C. The sanctuaries mostly survive on fundraising and donations.

"It takes an enormous amount of resources to run a quality rescue facility for horses," said Cindy Gendron of the Homes for Horses Coalition, a national joint venture of the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

Levine estimates it costs her about $1,000 a month per horse, between hay, special food, supplements and vet care. "It's a tremendous amount of money," she said. "We're on a vineyard, so people see dollar signs, but much of the funding comes from our family's pockets. We get some donations, but they're very small."

Saving a horse from slaughter is also costly, averaging about $1,400, including the purchase price, transportation to a sanctuary or safer location and 30 days of quarantine.

Levine relies on a small paid staff -- including stable manager Carlos Lopez and Michael Baisley, who takes the horses out, does major cleanups and assists Lopez -- and four volunteers to help care for Baiting Hollow's horses. She said that teamwork is key and that she could use more volunteers -- who must be at least 16 and are trained at Baiting Hollow to groom the horses and sometimes bathe them -- especially if they can focus on raising money to help defray the costs of operating the sanctuary.

"I could definitely use extra pairs of hands," she said. "If I could get people to come on a fairly regular basis, one day a week for a few hours a week, I'd be really happy."

Levine was once merely a dog lover who owned three bearded collies. "They're very high-maintenance dogs," she said, adding that only one, Codi, remains.

But that affection now extends to horses, and Levine's fondness for the 27 equines at Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue is apparent as she walks around the stables, describing each horse's traits and personality, recounting how each one came to Baiting Hollow.

"They're like my babies," said Levine, who runs the winery and the horse sanctuary with her brother. "When you save their lives, you want to protect them for the rest of their lives."

Locating new homes

And you want to find them good, permanent homes when possible, which was the case with Charlotte, a pony once destined for slaughter who was rescued by Levine and then adopted from Baiting Hollow in July by Joann Wieber of Westhampton. Charlotte, who is 8, lives with two other four-legged friends in Wieber's backyard, which has three stalls.

"It's like she's been here forever," Wieber said. "She loves people."

When she was at Baiting Hollow, Charlotte lived among horses of all ages, some of whom were rescued from poor living conditions. They include Laredo, a retired thoroughbred racehorse; siblings Sultan and Isis, who are Egyptian Arabian horses; Romeo, a black gelding who won two Belmont races and is the great-great-grandson of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat; and several miniature horses and ponies.

Some of the horses at Baiting Hollow have sustained injuries. That was the case with Chance, one of several neglected horses seized in 2011 from a local farm by the Suffolk County SPCA after an investigation.

"He had a very severe eye injury," recalled Roy Gross, the agency's chief, who calls on a handful of local stables or rescues for placement once a neglected animal is discovered.

Gross cited Indian Head Ranch in Huntington and Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue as models for others.

"Generally we don't see stables kept in the condition they are in," he said. "They go above and beyond."

Chance is now in good health -- although he did lose sight in his right eye -- and is thriving at Baiting Hollow among his equine friends.

Socializing and security

Levine and her brother understand that the horses saved from slaughter will be works in progress for a time. The abuse and trauma they've endured leaves them afraid and mistrustful of people, said Rubin. After they arrive at Baiting Hollow, they're slowly taught to socialize by their two trainers, the stable manager and a handful of volunteers, who groom and feed the animals and ride them, providing much-needed exercise.

One thing they must learn is trust. "A lot of them come from racetracks, and typically those horses are taught one thing -- to run," said trainer Schadt. "They don't understand how to have a real relationship with humans. They're typically scared."

It can take a few months of work with the animals, supported by consistent backup by Levine, Rubin, Rivera and staffers who groom, feed and ride the horses.

The transformation has been a challenge for the horses and the humans.

"It's been a roller coaster," Levine said about her rescue efforts and the adoptions, which can be bittersweet. "I'm emotional when they leave, they're so sweet."

But there are always more animals to rescue. Levine said she hopes to one day save some wild mustangs when resources allow. In the meantime, to deal with current costs, Baiting Hollow is running a fundraising auction at and planning a fundraiser at Southampton Social Club on Aug. 8, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., with live entertainment.

The vineyard also features a selection of wines for sale whose profits go directly to the sanctuary. They're named after the horses: Mirage is a red blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon; Angel is a chardonnay; and a rosé is called Savannah.

"We do tours here," Levine said. "I ask people, 'Do you know the other name for a retired horsee' It's baby," she added pointedly. "They're 3, 4, 5 years old. These horses -- they have their whole lives before them."

One volunteer's work

Kim Rivera has a pretty good idea what animals need. And she should -- she's a veterinary technician at practices in Hicksville and Wainscott, and she runs a mobile dog-grooming service through word of mouth. But she also puts her skills to good use at Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue, where she has volunteered for three years.

Rivera, 51, grew up in Ridgewood, Queens, and has been living in Manorville for the past 12 years. Her lifelong love of horses stems from childhood visits to see her grandmother in Mattituck, where Rivera said she would often go horseback riding. Over the years she has purchased and adopted several rescue horses, including a pair of Paso Finos that call her backyard home. Still, she spends whatever time she can at the Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue.

"Animals need us, and I want to help make a difference," said Rivera, shown at right with Tango.

When she began volunteering at Baiting Hollow, she was tasked with grooming the horses. "I brushed them out, gave them baths in the summer," she said. She took a particular liking to Justice, a descendant of Triple Crown winner Secretariat who had come to the rescue in 2012 after racing at Belmont. But then she spotted Tango, a Paso Fino stallion who was neglected and malnourished when he arrived at the rescue in 2010. He was also aloof, a character trait that Rivera said reflected his previous environment. "Because he came from a very neglectful situation, he was very standoffish," Rivera said. "He didn't trust anyone. He seemed bitter and angry."

They didn't warm up to each other right away. Rivera recalled that at first Tango would "look my way when I was taking care of the other horses. I'd go make a connection, but he'd walk away, so I'd walk away, too."

But with time and patience she persevered, until one day Tango walked over to her on his own. With trust finally established, she progressed to grooming and then riding him.

"He needed a person," Rivera said of her best equine pal. "When a horse, especially a fearful one, puts all their trust in you, your chest wants to explode. Animals need us. I want them to feel the love people don't think they need."

Rivera hopes to eventually adopt Tango when her work situation changes and she has more time to devote to the animals she so loves.

"That's my goal, but right now, I have the best of both worlds."

Sign me up

At Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue, the mission is to rescue equines that are abused, neglected and/or untrained, and those headed to slaughter. Besides giving them permanent sanctuary or providing all necessary care and training for them to become adoptable, the nonprofit strives to educate the public on the issue of horse slaughter.

"We look for volunteers with good hearts," said Sharon Rubin Levine, the nonprofit's executive director. "That is the most important thing. The rest will follow. No horse experience is necessary, but it's a plus."

On Aug. 8 from 3 to 7 p.m., the nonprofit will host a Save the Horses concert at the Southampton Social Club that includes a silent auction and gourmet lunch. Tickets range from $150 to $800. For more information about volunteering for or sponsoring the event, call 631-574-9667.

For more information about Baiting Hollow Farm Horse Rescue or to volunteer, call 631-574-9667 or email

You might consider . . .

Spirit's Promise Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation in Riverhead rescues abused and neglected horses or those that need a new home and helps them become therapy animals. For more information: 631-875-0433;

New York Horse Rescue Corp. in Manorville focuses on rehabilitating and retraining thoroughbred racehorses and placing them in new homes. For more information: 516-375-1373;

For more volunteer opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482;

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