Jen Zalak with Missy, a 38-year-old Arabian rescue on Friday,...

Jen Zalak with Missy, a 38-year-old Arabian rescue on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

It's a challenge operating a farm whose residents are too old to run, work and in some cases chew hay.

That's the reality of Twin Oaks Horse Sanctuary in Manorville, a family-run nonprofit that provides a final home for 15 elderly equines, most in their 20s and 30s, operators say.

After operating for 27 years -- first privately, then as a nonprofit since 2011 -- the sanctuary has struggled financially in recent years and was threatened with eviction by its landlords in August.

Jen Zalak, who lives in Holbrook and runs the farm with her mother, Christy Zalak, and cousin Cynthia Steinmann, said it is in danger of closing next year and that the family is ramping up fundraising efforts.

"After 27 years, you can't just say, 'The hell with it,' " said Christy Zalak, a retiree who lives in Centereach. "You can't go backward. You've got to go forward."

There are other horse rescue organizations on Long Island, but none specializes in caring for aging horses. Equine rescue groups around the country have been stretched thin as horse owners abandoned their animals during the recession.

Twin Oaks houses the aging equines and 11 paid boarders. The rescue horses pass their days roaming and exercising in large pens tucked amid tall locust trees. Missy -- at 38, the oldest horse on the farm -- is recovering from a stroke in early November and roams freely up and down the property's sandy paths.

Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and other storms since have left the barn's roof in tatters.

Christy Zalak first leased the 15-acre farm in 1988, built the barn and started renting space to other horse owners. The next year, the family rescued four horses from an auction upstate, including Missy.

Gradually, the Zalaks took in horses whose owners abandoned them due to age or the expense of upkeep. Horses typically live 25 to 30 years, and the ones the family cares for range in age from 12 to 38.

One is Saggy, 31, a former track pony at Belmont Park in Elmont. Another is Sham, a onetime rodeo horse from upstate who is about 30 years old.

Trixie, a 14-year-old miniature horse with one eye, is believed to have suffered abuse and neglect at a mill that churned out the small horses and sold them as pets.

Princess, 28, was a lesson horse until she started getting spooked with children on her back, prompting her owner to abandon her, Jen Zalak said.

"These horses have served people, which gets me," said Christy Zalak. "All their lives they did what we wanted them to do. You can't turn them out."

Jen Zalak, who works at the Internal Revenue Service office in Holtsville, estimated that the farm must raise $1,500 to $2,000 a month to stay open. An ongoing fundraiser involves pasta sales.

Though the challenges of caring for aging horses extend beyond money -- some are prone to arthritis; others must eat watered-down hay cubes because their teeth are too worn to chew -- the Zalaks wouldn't have it any other way.

"I think horses and people bond more as they get older," said Christy Zalak. "They just learn to love you more."


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