Chrissy Dalbora's been riding the horses at Rita's Stable her whole life, since before she was even born. Her mom was Rita Foster's first trail guide and led rides when she was pregnant with her daughter. Now a mom herself, Dalbora can't get her toddler, Cole, off the horses. She hopes he'll get to enjoy the same outdoor lifestyle she grew up loving.
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But the prospect seems a dim, unless help from the community can be harnessed.
Over the weekend a post on the I Love Montauk Facebook page began to galvanize supporters. A well-wisher reported the horses at Rita's were due to be sent to auction today, and some of them would be slaughtered, prompting a wave of sympathetic responses.
In an interview with The Independent on Monday, Dalbora said the auction wasn't set, but "We're going under, no doubt about it."
Foster has been at her daughter Lee Lee's bedside as she battles the final stages of an illness. Dalbora is acting manager and said someone had come along offering to partner with Foster and mount a benefit for the stables. They learned the would-be partner actually wanted to take the site over and develop it, and hopes of a last minute bail out were dashed . . . unless friends and patrons step up.
Working the 18 and a half acre site with just one stable hand to help care for 14 horses, plus an assortment of goats, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens, donkeys and even a peacock, Dalbora noted, "I'm the last one standing."
Facebook posts from supporters, and those who characterize Rita's as a Montauk touchstone, listed numerous rescue sites that might take the horses, but, said Dalbora, "We don't want them rescued. This is their home."
As she talked about what life at the stables is like and how much the rides mean to people who visit, an elderly chestnut mare named "Jinx" ambled out of the stable and down the dirt driveway. "If we had to auction Jinxy off, she would be slaughtered. No doubt about it; she can't work," Dalbora said.
"We don't want to have to put any of these guys down," she continued. "We just need to get them through the winter." Dalbora's working to put together a fundraiser over the Columbus Day weekend and, since the news of the stable's straits spread last weekend, has already begun to receive donations.
For decades, Rita Foster offered horseback lessons and trail rides to community members and tourists. She started with just a couple of ponies in her Montauk backyard. Most locals can recall class trips or weekend pony rides at the stable, now located on West Lake Drive. Generations have had a chance to cast their eyes upon bucolic Montauk views from astride one of Rita's horses.
"This place has changed so many people's lives," Dalbora reported. Often, she meets children ready for their first rides, brought to the stable by parents who rode horses there when they were kids. Dalbora spoke of innumerable letters she's received from riders, grateful for a great day on the trails.
In particular, a couple this past summer came to mind: For their 50th anniversary, a woman brought her husband to the stable. She was in her 70s and had never ridden before; her husband hadn't ridden in a half century. "Some people are so terrified to get on a horse, but once you get them up and you take them on a trot . . . she was laughing and crying at the same time," Dalbora recounted.
Over the years the stable has also become an informal farm animal rescue site. Many of the goats and sheep, like "Mama Goat" and "Baby Goat," were saved from slaughter at auction. Mama Goat was pregnant when Rita saw her about to be loaded onto the slaughter truck.
"Rita definitely has the biggest heart I've ever known when it comes to animals," Dalbora said. She's been known to sit in her truck all night with the headlights shining on the barn to make sure foxes don't get her ducks.
But now she's sitting nights with her daughter in the hospital. According to Dalbora, Lee Lee is in the end stages of childhood diabetes and also suffers from Lyme disease and an intestinal illness. "She's taking a turn for the worse." Crushing medical bills over the last several years have contributed to the stable's financial downfall. Gesturing across the stable yard, Dalbora said, "These are Rita's babies, too. It's so hard to see her losing everything."
As of Monday, plans for the fundraiser were still in the earliest stages. Dalbora is setting up a "Save the Stables" account for donations, and spent the day brainstorming a slew of ideas for the event. But as shadows began to grow long across the paddock, she stopped for a moment. It was time to give Cole a ride.