Shortly before 6 a.m. Easter Sunday, Willow Tree Farm owner Mette Larsen was awakened by a Riverhead police officer knocking on her door.
He had come to the Roanoke Avenue horse farm to inform her that he believed eight of her horses had escaped from the property and were roaming free along Sound Avenue. Panic set in for Ms. Larsen, who wondered why her alarm system hadn’t alerted her.
It wasn’t until she had dressed and rushed outside that she realized the horses didn’t belong to her. The eight horses were actually some of the 15 that are kept one mile west at the Dorothy P. Flint 4-H Camp on Sound Avenue.
The horses at the camp, which is owned by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County, had escaped the property after someone allegedly cut the wire fencing along the polo field where they graze, setting them free for an overnight excursion through Riverhead. Eight of the horses headed east, ending up across the street from Willow Tree Farms. The remaining seven headed west through the woods, where they were located more than a mile from the camp shortly after 8 a.m.
“They could have gotten killed,” Ms. Larsen said. “The road’s a straight line there, they could have been hit by a car. A horse running across the road is no different than a deer.”
Alberto Bengolea, who owns most of the horses boarded at the camp, filed a criminal complaint with the Riverhead Police Department Sunday morning. Mr. Bengolea, who maintains the field where the horses graze and gives polo lessons there, said he believes the fence was purposely cut open, though he does not know why someone would target his horses.
“It was deliberate and intentional,” said Mr. Bengolea, a native of Argentina. “There’s no way the horses did that. The wires are so strong, a horse would bounce back and fall down if one tried to run through it. Someone took their time to do this.”
Riverhead police have classified the incident as “criminal mischief” and are still investigating, said Lt. David Lessard. No similar incidents have been reported in town recently, he added.
All 15 horses were located Sunday morning and only one, a mare named Veronica, suffered injuries. She had several lacerations, including a significant cut below her knee that was bandaged and is being treated with antibiotics, said Dr. Cassandra Quinlan, an equine veterinarian from Sag Harbor who cared for the mare Sunday. Dr. Quinlan said the injuries are consistent with a horse “falling forward or bending its leg on fencing.”
Mr. Bengolea said he will keep the horses — five of which belong to real estate developer and fellow polo enthusiast Nick Aliano of Miller Place — behind an extra layer of fencing. While he realizes it’s a long shot that police will catch whoever cut the fence, he hopes the investigation will draw attention to the danger the horses were in and help prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
“If you hit a horse with your car, the horse becomes your passenger,” Mr. Bengolea said. “It could kill a person in an instant.”
Ms. Larsen said police stopped traffic along Sound Avenue for about five minutes Sunday morning while her staff safely ushered the eight wandering horses onto her property, where they were fed while she helped locate the owners.
She said the alleged fence cutting will have local horse owners on alert.
“This is a concern for all of us in the area who have horses,” Ms. Larsen said. “We’ll be on the lookout.”