A palomino named Chief enjoys a fresh mix of alfalfa and sorghum with Dice, Jack, Mickey, Mystery, and Fudge.

Fudge, by the way, is a rather large mule.

But equines of all kinds dine comfortably here, at what could be described as an al fresco food court.

"Welcome to Labrador Hill Sanctuary," says Sarah Rabinowitz Mognoni, who founded the facility on 15 pristine Waterford Township acres in 2000.

"They eat all day long here," Mognoni, an engaging guide in fun shades and horseshoe-themed earrings, observes.

"There's no particular time of day to eat when you're a horse."

No wonder the annual hay bills are $70,000; the nonprofit, all-volunteer operation frequently runs pledge campaigns with names like "Sassy's Hay Fund." A seder April 24 also will raise money to help feed the herd.

Sixty-two horses, donkeys, and mules reside at Labrador Hill (www.labradorhill.com). The organization rescues, rehabilitates, and nurtures these impressive creatures - mostly by letting them be themselves.

"I got the inspiration for this place after my daughter began learning to ride," says Mognoni, 60, who grew up in Nutley and moved to South Jersey from Ocean County in 1999.

Her daughter's lessons were at a private stable where the listlessness and indifference of the animals shocked her.

Mognoni says she realized that the otherwise healthy and well-cared-for horses spent much of their time confined in stalls, alone.

Having ridden as a child on frequent vacations out West, at places where horses lived like, well, horses, she knew there was another, better way.

"When horses are happy in their natural environment, they're gentle and unassuming and involved in their own friendships and relationships," Mognoni notes.

And as the mother of two and former art teacher learned more about the industrialized horse slaughtering, she and her husband, Russell, a retired New Jersey Health Department employee, decided to act.

The result is an equine paradise where there are no stalls, but plenty of freedom - to run, roam, socialize, and snooze under the sun and stars.

"They come, they stay," Mognoni says. "We don't adopt them out."

Labrador Hill also offers educational and recreational opportunities. About 35 children and adults are currently enrolled in riding and other programs, including equine-assisted therapy.

Students learn "natural horsemanship," a humane approach that emphasizes building relationships between humans and horses, and vice versa.

Speaking of which, a handsome bay named Pippin ambles over to greet us as we enter the pasture.

"Hi, Pip," Mognoni says.

As is true of many others in the herd, Pippin was facing an uncertain future because his previous owner couldn't care for him anymore.

But at Labrador Hill, "he has become central to our lesson program," Mognoni says. "He's beloved by everyone."

Pippin certainly seems nice enough. But I'm nervous out here on the free range. And not just about where to put my feet.

"By the way, each of these animals poops at least 10 times a day," Mognoni says. (I noticed.)

"This is their universe," she continues brightly. "They're in charge."


Although dairy cows grazed half a block from my childhood home in Massachusetts, I didn't spend much time around horses (unless faithfully watching Fury on Saturday morning TV in the 1960s counts).

So at first, it's a tad . . . disconcerting to find myself approached, and then surrounded, by enormous, inquisitive animals.

But after an hour or so, it's clear they're getting comfortable with me.

So why not get a little more comfortable with them?

I ignore an attempt to chew on my notebook as I stand, quietly, in the midst of horses being horses together.

There's nothing quite like it.

"You really do feel some kind of connection with them," says Clare Osman, 71, a retired registered nurse who lives in Haddonfield.

She began a riding program about two years ago, got her granddaughter involved, and now volunteers once a week.

"I groom the horses, and I'm just . . . there with them," Osman says. "I don't know how to describe it."

"You get to understand the horse," says Carolyn Edwards, a Waterford resident who began taking lessons at Labrador Hill four years ago and has since become a volunteer and board member.

"If you watch, and listen, you realize they understand, and respond," says Edwards. "It is so relaxing, so calming, to go out among them. They're living their lives the way they should.

"Sarah has made so many animals' lives so much better," Edwards adds.

"Labrador Hill is the best place in the world for them."

Not so bad for us humans either.

kriordan@phillynews.com 856-779-3845 @inqkriordan www.philly.com/blinq