Ginger likes me.

"She wants to be your friend," Denise Lanzetta says.

I'm not so sure; Ginger weighs half a ton and stands 16 hands high. Besides, she's the only quarter horse I've ever met.

But this 17-year-old chestnut mare, convalescing at Lanzetta's place in the Atlantic County Pinelands, quickly wins me over with her gentle charms.

Which makes it even tougher to believe that not long ago, Ginger was so starved you could count the vertebrae in her noble neck.

"Horses become throwaway animals, just like dogs or cats," says Pam Brighton, president of the Oasis Animal Sanctuary, an organization in Monroe Township. "We take in as many animals as we can. But we don't have a . . . facility of our own, and we are limited."

Lanzetta, an Oasis volunteer for three years, rescued Ginger this summer. (It's a complicated story involving a change in caretakers and inappropriate feed, but the horse was willingly surrendered.)

Ginger now enjoys the good life on Lanzetta's 19-acre farm, also home to nine other rescued horses, a bunch of cats and dogs, and a potbellied pig.

"There are horses here that have been abandoned or chained in their barns," Brighton says. "They're left to die."

I don't get it.

"We don't, either," she says.

Founded in 2000, Oasis rescues as many as 70 animals - mostly dogs and cats, as well as a couple of horses - annually. A network of adoptive and foster families and volunteers supports the work.

Brighton and Lanzetta believe the number of abandoned horses is growing. In 2008, Time magazine pronounced horse abandonment an "epidemic."

However, Stacy Segal, an equine-protection specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, says "there is no data to support" such assertions. The society's nationwide survey of state agriculture departments last year showed no spike in the number of horses needing rescue.

Segal does note that some people buy horses without understanding the ramifications, and Brighton and Lanzetta agree.

"There's a lot of impulse buying," Brighton says. "People don't make a commitment for the lifetime of the animal."

We're not just talking about a commitment of time: A 50-pound bag of feed costs around $15, and Ginger, for example, eats 14 pounds a day.

Do the math, factor in veterinary bills and other essentials, and you're looking at several thousand dollars annually at the very least.

No wonder permanent homes and even temporary shelters for unwanted horses are in short supply in South Jersey.

"There's nowhere to turn them in," Lanzetta says. "Every single [shelter] is saturated with animals, so people are abandoning them and dumping them."

It will be many months before Ginger will be available for placement. She needs to gain several hundred pounds and has serious (and seriously expensive) foot problems.

Oasis hopes to get Ginger some "sponsors" - people willing to help with feed costs. They'll get regular updates on her progress, which has been impressive.

"This horse by all rights should have been dead," Brighton says. "But she didn't want to die. She wanted to live. We could see in her eyes."

This sort of regard for and belief in animals "comes right out of your heart," Brighton says. In Lanzetta's words, "It's unconditional love that goes both ways."

Adds Brighton: "Anyone who does rescue will tell you that rescued animals know they've been rescued. And they give you so much, as a thank you.

"People say animals can't feel things. Well, baloney. If you're not in rescue, you don't know. You just don't know."

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or