Neglected horses taken to rescue facility

Miami man charged with cruelty to animals

OKEECHOBEE — The herd of neglected horses dubbed the “Okeechobee 23” on social media was loaded into trailers Monday under the supervision of Yvonne Barteau of Horses Without Humans. Nineteen mares, three colts and one filly are on their way to a better life.

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
OKEECHOBEE — Yvonne Barteau of Horses Without Humans was in Okeechobee on Monday to oversee the transport of the 23 horses impounded by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office to facilities and pastures lined up by the rescue organization.

The 23 will soon be 30, as seven of the mares are in foal. Some, like the pregnant mares, will go to a facility in Bell, Fla. Others will spend more time out to pasture in an undisclosed location in another county where they can gain weight before starting a training program.

Before they were loaded, the horses were separated into groups, a traumatic event for young horses separated from their mothers for the first time. Ms. Barteau said listening to the plaintive cries of the colts to their mothers is hard on everyone, but it had to be done. The colts will be fine, she added. They are still with their friends from the herd.

The ultimate goal, said Ms. Barteau, is to gentle and train each horse and find it a “forever” home. Accomplishing that goal will take a lot of time and patience. She said they hope to gentle the mares before they give birth.

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
OKEECHOBEE — The horses, impounded a month ago, have been well taken care of by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, opined those from the rescue organization. For more information on the horses or to contact the rescue organization that will oversee their treatment, training and placement, see the Horses Without Humans page on Facebook.

Most of the horses are “very feral,” she said. They have had very little handling. It is likely they’ve had no training. Training one of these horses will be like starting with a wild mustang, she said.

She said the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office did a wonderful job taking care of the horses since April 2, when deputies impounded the herd after finding them in distress on a property on “the Prairie.” Following the law, Sheriff Noel Stephen initially planned to auction them off. However, after learning just how wild the horses are, the sheriff opted to turn them over to a rescue.

Auctioning these horses off would have been dangerous, said Mrs. Barteau. A well-meaning buyer could have been injured while trying to handle a feral equine.

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
OKEECHOBEE — Yvonne Barteau of Horses Without Humans (left) and Cami Kanner of Equine Welfare Network look forward to watching the progress of the “Okeechobee 23.” The goal is to gentle and train the horses so they can be placed in “forever homes.”

Ms. Barteau said her organization became interested in the horses after an article on the Lake Okeechobee News website was brought to her attention. Cami Kanner of Equine Welfare Network said she helped connect Horses Without Humans with Okeechobee Animal Control because she knew of Ms. Barteau’s experience as a horse trainer working with wild horses. Ms. Kanner said the goal of Equine Welfare Network is to connect horse owners and horses with the help they need.

Ms. Kanner said they are grateful to the person who called the deputies and to the sheriff’s office for the compassionate care showed to the animals.

The Okeechobee 23
On April 2, the 23 horses were impounded by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office after they were found in distress on property on the Prairie.

On April 1, Deputy James Hartsfield was told by a concerned citizen that there were horses being slaughtered off 101 Ranch Road. The citizen did not witness the slaughter, but said she saw a horse in distress and unable to get up off the ground.

When Deputy Hartsfield arrived, it was dusk, and he was not able to properly see the condition of the animals. He spoke to a man, whose son translated, and he said he was the caretaker. He claimed the animals belong to an individual who is in Miami, Manuel Coto-Martinez. Deputy Hartsfield spoke to Mr. Coto-Martinez on the phone, and was told the man was sick but would come back to check on the animals.

The following morning, Cpl. Howard Pickering, Deputy Bryan Holden and Animal Control Officer Amy Fisher returned to the property and found 24 horses in poor condition. Fourteen of the horses scored between two and three in body score condition. A young colt was on the ground and unable to get up. His body score condition was a two or less. After a video chat with veterinarian Paul Bryant, it was determined the suffering animal should be euthanized.

Deputy Holden spoke to Mr. Coto-Martinez, who had returned during the night. Deputy Holden asked him if he checked on the colt, and he reportedly said he had not checked on the animal but assumed it was dead. Mr. Coto-Martinez then claimed that Leon Restrepo owned the animals and that he was only allowing Mr. Restrepo to leave his animals there temporarily. Mr. Coto-Martinez reportedly said Mr. Restrepo was in Columbia and could not come back, because the country is on lockdown. He said he could not reach him by phone, either.

The pasture where the horses were kept had no grass and consisted of sand and oak trees. There was a partial round of Hemarthria hay — which is for cows, not the quality of hay fed to horses — in the pasture. All of the horses were malnourished, needed their feet trimmed and showed signs of parasites.

Mr. Coto-Martinez agreed to turn the other horses over to animal control.

Following an investigation, Manuel Coto-Martinez, 73, of Miami was arrested May 4 by OCSO Deputy Christopher Tullio and charged with nine counts cruelty to animals and one count causing cruel death with pain and suffering. He was released on his own recognizance.

Cathy Womble contributed to this article.

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