Leland Neff walked 44 miles on his Schoharie County farm on Thursday in an attempt to find the 22 horses he lost in Hurricane Irene.
About seven years ago and halfway through an ambitious 15-year breeding project, Neff, who is a world-renowned photographer, moved to Fultonham so his horses could have more room than his property in East Hampton allowed. “I tried to recreate the best thoroughbred jumping breed lines,” he said. “Two days before the flood I was patting myself on the back saying, ‘I did the project.’ ”
But that success was short-lived, because 22 of his horses were missing from his property on Sunday after floodwaters swept through a 90-acre pasture on his property. He said four of the horses that were separated from the larger herd were found on Sunday morning.
“The very first thing [I did] was to ride a pony … around my property to see signs of life,” Neff said. “Went down further than I should have [toward the Schoharie Creek] on the pony and we didn’t see anything.”
A few days after that, Neff reached out to his friend Kim Tudor, who runs a sports marketing group, because he thought she could help spread the word about his plight. She said his initial message to her was an “S.O.S” through Facebook, which prompted her to reach out to her contacts in the world of thoroughbreds and marketing.
“Instantaneous,” was how Tudor described the reactions she received. “I’ve been receiving hundreds of messages from people wanting to help,” she said.
Neff said the outpouring of support surprised him, especially because search efforts during the first few days were just him. He said he found a lack of support from local officials and his neighbors.
But things could change soon, as volunteers from across the country are pledging support, including a person from California who offered to pay for an aerial search with a helicopter. Also, mounted state police are supposed to aid in the search today.
Neff did commend the kindness of one stranger who helped him maintain contact with the outside world, as his house still doesn’t have power and he needs to travel miles for Internet or cellphone reception. “Some man I never met volunteered to give a phone that works [without power],” he said.
In recent days, Neff’s optimism has been fueled by sightings of live horses down river and in neighboring areas. “I’m just encouraged that there is life being found,” he said.
A future without the missing horses hasn’t yet sunk in for Neff, who isn’t sure whether he would ever want to try to rebuild the herd he amassed. “I don’t know if I have the energy to recreate the herd,” he lamented.
It is believed that the horses were swept at least 50 miles downstream, as it would have been almost impossible for them to establish footing before that, he said. Also complicating things is the amount of debris in the water, which would have hampered any efforts by the horses to swim with the current.
More information about the missing horses and contact information for people with information about the horses can be found at http://www.netposse.com/view_report.asp?reportid=1422. The website is run by Netposse, which is a non-profit service that reunites missing horses with their owners.