Founder of Equine 808 horse rescue finds path in life through helping animals
Sometimes life’s proper direction is full circle. Betina Tacoronte was born in Colorado in 1965, where she resided until she married a military man. Stationed originally in Virginia, the couple was transferred to Hawaii in 1997.
Tropical living and ocean breezes — paradise, right?
In many ways, yes. But Tacoronte soon realized that the human beings’ shortcomings affect other species regardless of geography. As on the mainland, horse neglect and abuse were prolific in the islands. Tacoronte, 1980 Fountain Riding and Roping Club Queen and lifelong equine aficionado, decided to do something to help the animals she loved so much.
In 2007, she leased 2 and a half acres in the Kunia, Oahu subdivision of Kunia Loa Ridge Farms for a horse rescue and sanctuary. Tacoronte dubbed her endeavor Equine 808 Horse Rescue for Hawaii’s area code. In 2008, the facility attained 501c3 status.
Hawaiian horses and donkeys aren’t typically slaughtered for meat. Aside from one Polynesian culture that (legally) eats horsemeat, mass slaughter is logistically and financially prohibitive, Tacoronte said.
However, she said that when she began her rescue, Hawaii didn’t actively promote equine care standards, nor was its Humane Society of the United States branch adequately equipped, staffed or experienced to care for horses seized from neglectful or abusive owners.
Instead, they had a program called Pound Masters, through which local ranchers were selected by each city. Seized horses and cattle were simply awarded to these people, who could then keep, sell or otherwise dispose of the animals with no further intervention by any agency.
Tacoronte sought to change this practice. She spoke to Hawaiian HSUS officials about these issues. Veterinarians from as far as the Big Island of Hawaii came to listen. Through education, cooperation and collaboration, the islands’ HSUS branches now work with Equine 808 to rehabilitate and re-home legally seized equines.
Because of its mid-Pacific Ocean location, reasons (some nutritional) for abuse or neglect differ somewhat from those on the mainland.
Most equine feed is shipped in rather than locally grown.
On some islands, a native grass called kikuyu can be sparsely found. Cane grass is more commonly fed, but its sharp, 1-inch-wide blades often cut the corners of horses’ lips.
Founder is common due to the ultra-high sugar content of this forage. Ag issues ban introduction of many non-native plant species, so alfalfa and other grass seeds are prohibited. Additionally, those that might otherwise be allowed couldn’t thrive in some Hawaiian soils.
Shipping hay and grain by boat is subject to extra costs at both ends of the journey. Tacoronte said that a 65-75 pound bale of grass hay currently costs $42. When shipping costs rise, so does the amount. Plus, baled hay is handled multiple times and shipped in containers sans temperature control for days en route, increasing mold potential. Add in imported grain prices, and it’s easy to understand why many Hawaiian horse owners face critical feeding problems if their personal economies takes a hit.
Equine 808 feeds popular cubes rather than bales 90 percent of the time. The minimally processed form of alfalfa is easier to store and, at $25-30 per 50 pound bag, is less expensive. Just add water.
Since 2007, Equine 808 has re-homed approximately 100 horses and donkeys. Given an average one-year stay for training and reconditioning, that’s a lot. Sadly, many Hawaiian horses don’t receive proper vet care or nutrition. They suffer irreversible damage which, even if not lethal, make them far less ‘attractive’ to the pool of potential adopters, already much smaller than that on the mainland.
While Equine 808 was making great strides forward, Tacoronte’s personal life hit a major roadblock: divorce. She decided it was time to move home to Colorado, but where and how?
Yet unknown to her, the full circle had begun turning.
A year prior to her decision, Donald Simmons died in a tragic boating accident. The horse breeder’s 160-acre Paint horse ranch was for sale.
Tacoronte’s brother, Joe Conway, called her to see if she would be interested in his deceased friend’s property. Tacoronte believed it financially impossible but toured the Ellicott, Colo., land anyway.
Returning to Hawaii, she called Simmons’ daughter Donna to decline purchase. She loved the place, but it was far more than she could afford.
When Simmons answered the phone, “Amazing Grace,” her parents’ favorite song, was playing in the background. Its spiritual message touched Tacoronte; so, rather than declining, she just said she needed more time to decide.
Donna Simmons began praying for a divine sign if Tacoronte was “the one” for the acreage. She and her aunt looked at Equine 808’s website to learn more of what it was about. There, they viewed a video that included the story of ‘Gracie,’ a rescued white mare. In the background, a ukelele played “Amazing Grace,” which, it turned out, is Gracie’s full name.
Shortly thereafter, Tacoronte called yet again to decline purchase. Before she could, Simmons mentioned the video’s song. Tacoronte told her she was mistaken, that she’d viewed it at least 100 times and there was no ukelele playing. But she again asked for more time to decide about the land. She hung up, viewed the video and “Amazing Grace” on a uke was softly playing. How had she missed it before?
Tacoronte eventually decided to buy the Ellicott, Colo., property, regardless of how she’d finance it. That was late in 2012. In January 2013, a class action lawsuit she was part of was settled and Tacoronte was awarded enough to afford what became Equine 808 Colorado. Amazing grace, but the circle wasn’t quite full yet.
Tacoronte was puzzling over what to call her new place. After all, what sense did it make to christen a Colorado rescue facility with Hawaii’s area code? Then, during the buying process, she noticed something on a property assessor’s page: Ellicott’s zip code is 80808! Circle full.
In June 2013, 12 Hawaiian horses arrived at Equine 808’s Ellicott facility for use in its Wounded Warrior program, horse camps, field trips, pony rides and fundraising.
Wounded Warrior is a non-riding program in which participants each select their horse by its personality. Former military members, some with post-traumatic stress disorder, groom, clean up after and lead their animal during sessions. Some have even gone on to become volunteers after experiencing the healing that comes from kindly interaction with equines.
“It’s very emotional,” said Tacoronte. “Some start crying or talk to their horses.”
Tacoronte said that the program was big in Hawaii due to the large military presence there. Since her Ellicott location is relatively near Shriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force base, Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, she hopes to broaden the program’s scope through military contacts and word-of-mouth.
As a cancer survivor, she found an appreciation she’d never before recognized that horses can save people as well as people can save horses.
Herd dynamics show troubled teens that each herd member reacts differently to stress and problems. As in Wounded Warriors, each young person then selects which horse to work with in their program.
When asked why he chose a particular horse, one child matter-of-factly said, “I’m a bully at school, too.”
A couple months after its inception, the Ellicott facility began accepting new horses. These included four from an ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Spokane, Wash., seizure in which a woman had hoarded/neglected/starved 125 horses and had likely shipped many to slaughter as well. One of those four Spokane horses, a pinto X draft mare Tacoronte calls ‘Dakota Reign’, became her personal horse. The other three have been adopted.
As do the horses it saves, Equine 808 faces a bright future. Tacoronte, a first responder for the ASPCA, made two March 2016 trips to North Carolina in a current seizure case that includes 48 horses. The abuse/neglect case was just settled and she will be getting six horses from it. All are Warmbloods and should arrive in Ellicott around March 21.
Tacoronte’s own offspring also retain herd status. Daughter Athena, 32, is on the rescue’s board of directors. Although she lives in Missouri, the former barrel racer is very involved here and in Hawaii, securing grants for the non-profit.
Youngest daughter, 27-year-old Alyssa Cordero and her husband Angel, just purchased 40 acres in front of Tacoronte’s Ellicott location to house the couple’s two horses, both of which were 2008 owner-surrenders.
Tacoronte’s 30-year-old daughter Monika likes to ride, but is not actively involved in rescue.
Equine 808’s Oahu facility is set to expand in 2017 from a smaller, mountainside property to a 10-acre leased property on a flat, easier-to-access location. Education of the many Hawaiian children who have no contact with livestock will be one of the Oahu facility’s priorities. Tacoronte, who has eight grandchildren, well-knows the importance of guiding youth along proper paths.
She knows firsthand that life’s direction can often come full circle. ❖