Stolen Horses International Helps Bring Horses Home

Hurricane Irene stormed up the Atlantic coast in late August, leaving destruction in her path. In the chaos that ensued during and after the storm, 22 horses from Schoharie County, N.Y., went missing. The animals' owner, Leland Neff, believed the horses had been swept away during the storm, but turned to an organization some horse owners might not be familiar with in an attempt to find his horses.

Stolen Horses International, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and its companion website electronic network that circulates images and information about missing and stolen horses--often deal with horses taken from their homes, but jumped at the chance to help Neff in the search for his horses.

Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horses International Inc. (SHI), has seen countless missing horse reports over the years and began the campaign after a personal experience led her to realize the realities of missing horses.

"I didn't ask to do this," Metcalfe said. "I fell into it because we became victims."

Metcalfe founded SHI after her mare Idaho was stolen in 1997. Idaho's eventual return after a year of searching made Metcalfe realize how important it is to have a network of people helping bring stolen or missing horses home.

Today the organization is dedicated not only to assisting victims of horse theft but also to educating the public about the prevalence of theft and the ways in which it can be prevented. She believes her mission is a necessary one in a country where the frequency of such crime is apparently on the rise. While there are no actual records of horse thefts, Metcalfe said she has seen a definite increase in the number of anecdotal reports over the last two years.

So who is stealing these horses? According to Metcalfe, horse thieves include, "everybody from your backyard thief to professionals and white-collar workers."

According to Metcalfe, horses are often stolen for resale, and such horses are generally not in the thieves' hand long. Metcalfe's own Idaho changed hands five times within the six months after she was stolen.

Metcalfe said horse theft is often not legally defined as a criminal offense. Horses under lease and horses boarded on another's property are frequently targeted for theft, but such cases are pursued in civil, not criminal, court. While outright theft--the removal of an individual's lawful assets from private property--is considered a criminal offense because it is perpetrated against the state and society as a whole, instances in which rightful ownership is in question are defined as civil disputes and concern only the parties directly involved.

"There are all kinds of red tape ways to take a horse and tie up the owner," Metcalfe said. "(A barn manager) may claim that you owe them money and sell the horse out from under you."

Some cases--those that involve willful acts of trespassing and the seizure of lawful property--remain clearly criminal, and the culprits are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The chances of tracking down these criminals can be slim, but thanks to modern technology and widespread Internet access, the possibility of recovering stolen horses has increased dramatically.

Rhonda Anders, a Bybee, Tenn., horse owner whose gelding Why Not Deal Me Jazz was stolen from her home in May 2010, said was important to the horse's safe return.

"It got the information out there," Anders said.

Anders also said that the freeze brand on Jazz's hip was a key factor in his return. The couple who bought Jazz at a horse sale more than two hours away from Anders' home recognized the identifying mark as seen in an online flier and called immediately to coordinate his return. Anders considers herself lucky that the buyers were honest--many in the same situation would not be so obliging. As a result of her experience, Anders is planning to brand each of the horses on her property, a preventive technique also suggested on

Additional suggestions for horse theft prevention include:

  • Keep gates padlocked;
  • Keep halters off of horses in pastures;
  • Keep a sharp eye out for suspicious persons at public events hosted at the farm;
  • Install security lighting around the barn;
  • Place security signs on pasture fences; and
  • Photograph unique markings and ID markings on each horse for records.

Why Not Deal Me Jazz returned home two months after he disappeared, but according to Metcalfe, horses have been recovered as many as 12 years after they go missing.

"As long as they can be alive, there's a chance of finding them," Metcalfe said. "It's like a needle in a haystack but the haystack keeps moving. It's hard but it's not impossible."

Metcalfe said the most important thing an owner can do after discovering a horse is missing is to call local law enforcement and then call SHI. The SHI staff works directly with owners to determine details and create a public webpage containing a personalized flier and all relevant contact information.

The organization receives no grants and has no sponsors--all funds are donated and go directly to assisting horse owners in need, and all SHI staff are volunteers. Metcalfe said that despite the inherent pressure of her work environment, she loves what she does and considers the NetPosse service a necessary one.

"Everything we do is to protect the owner and the horse," she said.

Metcalfe continues to aid in the search for Neff's horses missing after the hurricane. Anyone with information about the 22 horses or their whereabouts is asked to contact SHI.

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