A middle-aged horse that was saved from the slaughterhouse, adopted by an Oakland teenager who loves it more than words can describe, has been missing since Saturday.
“Chief” – a very large, dark brown-and-white spotted horse – became either scared or excited Saturday and took off running.
Makenzie Vulgaris, 15, saved Chief from a terrible fate in September. And he obviously appreciated her efforts, which makes his running away incomprehensible to the Vulgaris family.
According to mom Denise Vulgaris, Chief is “a big mush” – a calm and collected sweetheart, especially when Makenzie is around. Despite his imposing size, the paint horse lets his owner doll him up in glitter and pink accessories, and, based on her Facebook page, he doesn’t seem to mind posing for photographs with her either. There are photos of Makenzie literally hanging upside down off Chief's neck, and photos of him getting cuddly with a small dog and an elderly rider.
The Vulgaris family took Chief in this past September, housing him first at Indian Hills Farm equestrian center in West Milford. About six weeks ago, Chief relocated to a residential farm on the 800 block of Ramapo Valley Road in Mahwah, a stone’s throw from the Vulgaris home.
On Saturday morning, a fellow horse enthusiast asked if he could take Chief for a ride around the Mahwah property, according to Denise Vulgaris. The family agreed, and as Chief and two other horses went out for their excursion, Makenzie strolled beside the group on foot.
With all of the snowfall and ice this winter, most horses in northern New Jersey – including Chief – haven’t been out for their usual runs and rolls through the grass. Though Makenzie makes a point of getting Chief out of his stall for short indoor or in-the-long-driveway walks, he hasn’t gotten his typical dose of exercise.
Maybe he got excited? Maybe something scared him? No one’s quite sure, but 15 minutes into a slow tour with his substitute rider, Chief bolted. He tore away from the group and headed onto a patch of ice, where all four of his hooves began sliding in different directions, despite the rider’s efforts to rein him in, Makenzie recounted. The rider – known to be experienced and adroit – eventually hopped off Chief’s back, afraid the horse would fall and crush him in the process. Free of a rider, Chief regained his balance and galloped off.
The area in which Chief went missing, in Ramapo Mountain State Forest
The other two riders and horses chased him into the woods of Ramapo Mountain State Forest for over 3 miles. One horse couldn’t navigate the rocky terrain any longer and dropped out of the chase. At the intersection with Ramapo Lake, Chief jumped in and crossed saddle-deep waters. The remaining chase horse was too scared to venture into such deep currents, and all sight of Chief was lost at the fire road near the Mahwah pipeline.
In hindsight, Denise Vulgaris says chasing Chief may have not been the best idea. He likely kept running out of fear of being pursued.
Since Saturday, the Vulgaris family, with the support of fellow equestrians, has exhausted its search efforts. Dad James Vulgaris even rented a plane and flew over the Mahwah and West Milford area – just in case Chief tries to find his old barn. Friends and family have toured miles of land around Mahwah, Oakland, Ringwood, Wanaque and Suffern, not only on foot but also with the aid of Jeeps, quads and other horses. The ASCPA has helped as well. Photos of volunteers mapping search and rescue routes adorn Denise Vulgaris’s Facebook page – alongside all the other photographs of Chief and the in-action search team determined to find him.
James Vulgaris did find one of the stirrups from Chief’s saddle while walking the trails around Mahwah Saturday, but otherwise, there have been no signs of the horse. Various organizations for lost pets feature photos and descriptions of Chief on their websites, but that, too, has led nowhere.
Denise Vulgaris said she fears Chief has become hung up by his reins, perhaps caught on a fence or a tree branch. Or, there’s always the possibility that someone found him and took him in, she said.
“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I’m running on adrenaline right now,” she continued. “The amount of people calling me, and on Facebook, everyone’s been sharing photos and helping out. We haven’t stopped. We're out day and night.”
Anyone that may have information about Chief’s whereabouts is asked to contact the Mahwah Police Department at 201-529-1000.
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