Last year a Texas rancher discovered his mare fatally stabbed by thieves who were trying to reach a stash of scrap metal on his property. Local police initiated an investigation into the incident and vowed to step up patrols in the area. But those efforts by law enforcement could never compensate for the loss of the mare.
Discovering that a horse has been harmed or stolen ranks high on owners' lists of worst-case scenarios. Exactly how many horses are injured, killed, or stolen by intruders annually is uncertain, says Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horse International and operator of NetPosse, two websites designed to help owners search for and recover missing equines. However, Metcalfe estimates 40,000 horses go missing every year. Some are stolen by strangers, and others disappear from their barns or pastures in connection with divorce and civil disputes. More than 2,000 horses are listed on the NetPosse website currently, according to Metcalfe.
"I'd say we're getting one percent of one percent of what's out there,” she says.
Fortunately, owners can take measures to reduce their animals' risk of turning up missing or worse. Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president and primary instructor of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Inc., believes making barns and pastures difficult targets for intruders is a key first step to preventing theft.
To this end, Gimenez recommends building barns away from areas where trees or brushy vegetation might obscure the structures. Choosing more visible locations reduces cover for intruders and allows owners to see anyone walking or driving toward the barns. As a bonus it minimizes fire impact in areas where wildfires are common.
"However, do not lock (horses in) barns," Gimenez says. "This is dangerous because it makes it impossible for someone to access your animals in case of fire or other emergency."
Be sure the property is well-fenced with materials that are not easily cut or removed, she advises. Equip all gates on the edge of the property with locks, and be sure to instruct all family members and barn personnel to lock gates at the end of the day and anytime the premises will be left unattended.
"Decent fencing will not always deter a criminal who is intent on gaining access," Gimenez says. "But at least it will slow him down or limit his options."
As board chairperson of the Palmetto Equine Awareness and Rescue League, in Sandy Springs, S.C., it's Nicole Walukewicz's job to keep horses that were seized or removed in criminal cruelty cases safe. She warns potential intruders that she's on the lookout for them by placing "no trespassing" signs on all four corners of the farm's fences and everywhere else between. "That means no hunting, no fishing, no hiking are allowed on our property," Walukewicz explains.
She further safeguards horses in her care by housing them in pastures situated well away from roadways and other public access areas. A perimeter fence that extends to the edges of the property surrounds all the pastures, which allows Walukewicz to lead horses from one farm location to another well out of public view.
"The people involved in these cases know where their horses are, so making them as inaccessible as possible is important to us," Walukewicz says.
Motion-sensing lighting is also a useful security tool. In addition to illuminating barn and paddock areas for evening chores and checks, strategically placed lights with motion sensors can alert owners about unwanted nighttime visitors--both two- and four-legged. Meanwhile, cameras installed in and around barns and paddocks let intruders know property owners take security concerns seriously. Gimenez says working security cameras can not only deter thieves and vandals but also provide valuable information for law enforcement personnel if a criminal activity commences. Even devices that only give the impression that premises are under electronic surveillance are useful, she says.
"No one can tell if they are taping or not, which makes your property less likely to be a target," Gimenez says. "It's all about becoming a harder target than the barn down the road."
Still, no amount of equipment--high- or low-tech--can be effective if owners inadvertently invite intruders to steal or harm their horses, according to Dennis Sigler, PhD, professor and extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University's Department of Animal Science.
"I would say we can make our horses too accessible when they’re kept in stalls or down in the pasture and halters are (hanging) on stall doors or on gates," Sigler says.
It's better, he advises, to stash halters and bridles in tack rooms (instead of on hooks by the doors) and carry halters and lead ropes back to the barn after turnout. Sigler also warns security-conscious owners to avoid leaving horses and equipment unattended at horse shows and other equestrian events where law enforcement personnel presence might be limited. Do not hang tack and equipment near event facility stalls or store them in unlocked trailers. He advises that owners can also reduce risk for theft at shows by checking regularly on horses staying overnight in venue barns.
"At some high-profile shows, it's even a good idea to pay a security guard to walk the barns all night long," he says. "Each stall should have a sign-in card, and guards should sign in every time they check a stall."
Identification and Recovery
While securing premises where horses reside is crucial to thwarting thieves and other intruders, Metcalfe says owners should also take proactive measures that could increase recovery chances if their horses go missing.
When it comes to recovering lost or stolen horses, it’s critical that owners can positively identify their animals, Metcalfe says. Freeze brands, tattoos, iris scan records, and microchips are common permanent identification options.
A veterinarian might freeze brand a horse using a branding iron that has been chilled with a coolant such as dry ice or liquid nitrogen. Or a veterinarian can apply a tattoo containing date of birth, registration number, or other identifying information to the horse’s upper lip (as is common with registered Thoroughbreds) or elsewhere. With iris scanning the veterinarian uses an infrared camera to measure numerous points on the iris; someone can then scan the eye and compare it to a database to identify a horse, much the same way law enforcement authorities use fingerprints to identify humans. A veterinarian can also implant a microchip containing a registration number associated with identification information into the horse’s neck. After administering a local anesthetic midway down the horse’s neck, veterinarians use a specially designed needle and syringe to implant the chip so it lodges about an inch beneath the skin’s surface. A nonmigratory tip ensures the microchip will not dislodge. If a microchipped horse is stolen, law enforcement personnel can use a hand-held scanner to confirm the animal’s identity, given the owner properly registered the animal with the microchip company beforehand.
Metcalfe recommends that horse owners place identifying marks on farm and equestrian equipment as well. "If they’re going to steal your horse, they’re going to steal your equipment," Metcalfe warns. "It's all tied together."
If a horse theft occurs, owners should contact law enforcement immediately, says Sgt. Andrew Rasmussen, special operations unit supervisor for the San Luis Obispo County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department. When making a report, owners should be ready to provide investigators with all their horse-related documents, including bills of sale, veterinary bills and Coggins certificates, registration papers, and recent photographs of the animal. Photos of the horse and the owner together are especially useful, Rasmussen says. "Ideally, owners should keep an updated file on their horses containing all this information," he says.
After filing police reports, owners whose horses are insured should forward a copy of the report to the insurer, says Kathy Stringer, underwriter for the Great American Insurance Co.
"Theft is usually part of whole life coverage for your horse," Stringer explains. "So an owner would submit the police report to the insurance company the same way they would if their car had been stolen."
While law enforcement personnel investigate the case, Rasmussen recommends owners inform close friends about the incident, but refrain from telling strangers the animal is missing.
"That way if your friends are out at a horse show or other event and see your horse, they can inform you and you can inform the police," Rasmussen says. Also, he adds, "if you've had someone come to your barn inquiring about purchasing your horse before it went missing, don't (contact them later and) tell them the horse was stolen. That person could be a potential suspect in the case."
Postings on social networking and other websites can be useful for recovering a stolen or missing horse, Sigler says, because "in 15 minutes you can get the word out to a million people," he explains.
However, Metcalfe advises owners to exercise caution when making social media postings. "The percentage of people on social networking sites who can actually help recover your horse is very low, and not everyone who responds to a posting has good intentions," Metcalfe says.
And even if owners add their horses to websites such as Stolen Horses International, Metcalfe recommends they also place flyers in local feed stores, veterinarians' offices, and convenience stores and other high-traffic locations.
"People might not have Internet access or may not have seen your postings," Metcalfe says. "The flyers will always be out there."
Flyers should consist of at least one photo of the horse along with a detailed description of the animal, including breed, gender, height, weight, color, and markings, as well as any other distinguishing features, Metcalfe says. It's important to include law enforcement contact information and reward offers, as well. However, Rasmussen advises against owners directly offering monetary rewards.
"Rewards are helpful, but they're more effective when they are offered anonymously," Rasmussen advises. "Go through CrimeStoppers to offer rewards."
Likewise, he warns owners against personally following leads generated by flyers or Internet postings. "If you get a lead on your horse, inform law enforcement so they can follow up, but do not go onto someone else's property yourself," Rasmussen says. "If you do you could be exposed to trespassing charges or, if the horse has been stolen by this person, the situation could get dangerous."
Walukewicz believes that whatever measures owners adopt to secure their own properties, they'd do well to remember there is safety in numbers.
"You want to create a situation so that your neighbors know who is supposed to be on your property and you know who is supposed to be on theirs," she says. "When people cooperate as good neighbors and look out for each other, everyone’s animals are going to be safer."
While it is impossible to eliminate horse theft and other risks completely, owners can make their horse farms less vulnerable to thieves by remaining vigilant and implementing effective security measures.
About the Author
Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.