Theft and Horse Identification

Horse theft is a reality. Regardless of breed or discipline, it can happen to you. Mary Beth Jacobs learned that painful lesson the morning of Sept. 29, 1997, when she arrived at Lone Star Stables in Ft. Worth. Lucky Lady, her bay Quarter Horse, had lived there for the past 10 years. Now the mare was gone, stolen by a thief before the morning light.

Also missing were Miss Sunny, a 22 year-old dark bay Throughbred mare, and Sugar Pal, a 13-year-old sorrel Morgan gelding, along with a trailer and a lot of tack.

Horses had been a passion of Jacobs since childhood. She had heard about horse theft; however, she believed it was something that happened to other people. Jacobs never imagined having to hear the words: "Your horse has been stolen."

Paralyzed with disbelief, Jacobs said she stood there in shock for what seemed like eternity, then ran to Lady’s stall. It was empty! And the stalls on either side were empty, too.

"I felt like my heart had been ripped out," Jacobs said of looking into Lady’s still empty stall. "My knees buckled, and I sank to the ground crying bitterly; Dear God! Why my horse? What have I done?"

The county sheriff’s department took a report over the phone after hearing the horses had no identification other than white marks and breed registration papers. Three days later, investigators came to the property to look around. They suspected the thieves arrived with only a pickup truck. The horses were haltered, taken from their stalls, and loaded onto a four-horse slant trailer parked on the property. Tack was randomly grabbed.

The private boarding stable had gates, but none were locked, making entry all too easy. The motive appeared to be cash, either by private sale or through public auction. None of the horses had any type of identification, leaving law enforcement officials nothing concrete with which to work. The bottom line looked like this: no identification, no witnesses, no evidence, no suspects. Case closed.

Lucky Lady, Miss Sunny, and Sugar Pal might not have cost or won fortunes, but they were worth millions in the lives of the people they touched. They were not found.

International Scope

Most thefts involve horses like Lucky Lady. Occasionally, however, famous horses are stolen. The cases of Fanfreluche, Shergar, and Carnauba stunned the international Thoroughbred racing community when those well-known runners brazenly were stolen in unrelated incidents.

Fanfreluche, Jean-Louis Levesque’s 1970 Canadian Horse of the Year, was reported stolen from Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky., on June 25, 1977. Fanfreluche, a Northern Dancer mare, won the Alabama Stakes and was co-champion 3-year-old filly in the United States in 1970. At the time of her theft, she was in foal to Secretariat.

The FBI worked in cooperation with the Kentucky state police because of three possible motives: ransom, a ringer, or politics. The theft was well-planned and took place in broad daylight, giving authorities options with which to work.

Meanwhile, in Tompkinsville, Ky., some 150 miles outside of Paris, Ky., a stray mare was found in early July, 1997, by a family who called her Brandy and cared for her until the day the FBI came by to reclaim her and announce her true identity. Eight months after she was reported stolen from one of the nation’s leading Thoroughbred farms, Fanfreluche was found in good health and returned home.

Federal authorities conducted a four-year search for William Michael McCandless of Hendersonville, Tenn., after he was initially charged with the 1977 theft of Fanfreluche. McCandless, who denied any involvement in the mare’s theft, was convicted in connection with the case while in prison serving a federal sentence for his alleged part in an interstate truck theft ring.

Perhaps the most compelling international controversy was that of Shergar, winner of the 1981 English Derby by 10 lengths, the widest margin in the history of the classic.

Shergar, abducted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on Feb. 8, 1983, from the Aga Khan IV’s Ballymany Stud on the edge of The Curragh in Ireland, was shot to death a few hours later. Circumstances surrounding the nine-year case appeared to be common knowledge, but were never substantiated until confirmed by a former IRA gunman turned police informant.

Shergar’s covering fee was 75,000 British pounds, and IRA kidnappers thought they could extort 10 million pounds in ransom. However, the syndicate owning Shergar refused to pay.

The informant said Shergar was taken to a hiding place close to the Northern Ireland boarder. When the stallion became severely distressed by unfamiliar surroundings, the kidnappers could not calm him so they allegedly shot him and buried him in dense woods.

Another famous case involving a valuable Thoroughbred was the 1975 kidnapping of the champion filly Carnauba in Italy. In that case, the thieves asked a ransom, but owner Nelson Bunker Hunt refused to pay. Later, the filly was found in a stable near a butcher shop and returned to Hunt. Fanfreluche and Carnauba are extremely rare examples of happy endings.

How And Why Theft Happens

Horse theft is almost always driven by the need for cash. Very seldom is it a random act or political retribution. The crime is easy due to little, if any, horse inspection at equine auctions and abattoirs (slaughterhouses) along with a criminal justice system that seems to support nominal punishment for that type of offense. (In most cases, horses are "property" and are prosecuted as such.)

Industry experts estimate approximately 40,000 horses and ponies might be stolen in the United States annually. However, there is no uniform crime reporting category for this type of non-violent offense, making reported statistics difficult to obtain.

Law enforcement officials who handle horse theft investigations state that the number of thefts appears to remain constant, while the number of women involved with horse theft is increasing. They also report that incidents occur during the day and night.

The breeds reported stolen the most are Quarter Horse, Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred mix, Thoroughbred, Appaloosa, and other generic or grade horses. Ninety percent are bays and sorrels; 8% are solid black, white, or gray with very few white marks and without any method of identification.

Investigators say that horse theft takes place in areas with large concentrations of horses and in states without horse inspection programs, leaving no paper trail, little evidence, plenty of reasonable doubt, and insufficient evidence.

Identification of your horses, tack, and equipment is an important factor in preventing theft and is absolutely crucial to reclaiming your property when and if it is recovered.

Methods Of Equine ID For Theft Prevention

Permanent identification of horses, along with proper security measures, is a horse owner’s best method to deter theft. More than just risk management, equine ID is responsible horse ownership.

Horse theft is a non-violent offense, like auto theft. Most law enforcement agencies are burdened with violent offenses. They tend to view stolen horses and property without identification as if you left the keys in your vehicle’s ignition while you ran into a convenience store for something.

Consider one or several methods of permanent identification, (like a VIN # for automobiles), which will assist these agencies and other livestock investigators in recovering your horse.

Before selecting one or several methods of equine ID, give some thought to the criteria that best fit your specific situation. All methods have strengths and weaknesses. For you, the owner, permanent identification is positive proof of ownership. For the horse, benefits of permanent identification include the following: breed registration, parentage verification, disease control, insurance purposes, transfer of ownership, record keeping, and theft prevention.

When you have selected one or several methods of equine ID, you’ll need to register your brand, mark, or electronic ID. If you live in a state with a horse inspection program, register with the state livestock department. If your state does not have such a program, you’ll want to register with your county records clerk. This also establishes a point of ownership for generic horses without official breed registration papers.

Breed registries have specific requirements for identification. Send in a copy of additional brands, marks, and electronic ID methods with those registration papers.

Several privately held registries offer services for the specific purpose of recording horse identification. However, they do not offer law enforcement connections. When it comes to theft protection, law enforcement is key. Those are the individuals most likely to recover your missing horse.

Hot Iron Branding

Since the beginning of time, man has looked for ways to distinguish his animals and property from those of another. As a result of this need to recognize one’s own animals, hot iron branding developed and is used on many ranches today.

This non-invasive method is easy to perform with practice. Hair does not grow back, and the brand is easy to see from a distance. It’s great prima facie evidence in a court of law, and forensic tests can determine if the brand has been altered.

Branding irons are your only cost and can be purchased through your state cattlemen’s association or a branding iron manufacturer. Irons can run from $50 to $150-plus, depending on your design.

Freeze Branding

Used since the 1960s and considered to be more humane than hot iron branding, this method appeals to many horse owners. It is accomplished by a combination of time, pressure, and cold. For the best "How to" brochure, see Texas A&M Extension Service publication # L-5084.

Freeze branding is easy to perform with practice. Hair grows in white and can be visible from a distance. If your horse is white or gray, leave the iron on a few seconds longer. The hair will not grow back, and it will give the appearance of a hot brand.

Select an area that is visible, like the hip or shoulder. Thieves will see the brand on the shoulder as they approach the horse in an open situation. If your horses are stalled and snoozing (at night), they normally put their heads in a quiet corner while the rump or hip faces the stall door opening, easily visible by flashlight.

Freeze branding irons can be purchased through your state cattlemen’s association or a branding iron manufacturer. Before purchasing an iron, check with your state branding office or county records clerk to assure that your design is not already registered by another farm, stable, or ranch. Then, make sure you register your brand in the county in which you and the horse live.

This method is great prima facie evidence, but the brands easily can be altered. Irons can run between $50 and $150, depending on your design, plus $35-$50 to the individual who freeze brands, plus visit and travel fees.

Alpha Angle System

This method originally was developed for and used by the Bureau of Land Management horse program. The alpha angle system incorporates the date of birth, breed, and registration number of each horse and is applied by trained individuals on the neck or under the mane.

The alpha angle system cannot easily be read in auction or abattoir facilities, generally is not visible from a distance, and can be altered. Cost is approximately $75 plus call out and travel fees.

Electronic ID

Developed in the early 1970s, electronic ID (EID) is invasive and offers proof of ownership for the horse and owner. It’s considered high-tech branding and is computer compatible.

A tiny microchip, laser etched with a unique alpha numeric code, is implanted in the nuchal ligament of the horse and read with a radio frequency scanner. The injection procedure is performed by licensed veterinarians.

EID is difficult to remove surgically without extreme trauma to the nuchal ligament and possible death of the horse. Surgical removal and death to several horses have been experienced by the Italian racing industry and was reported in the 1998 American Association of Equine Practitioners Subcommittee of Infectious Diseases. Despite this incident, EID remains the popular method among European horse owners.

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture uses this method for the purpose of equine infectious anemia (EIA) disease control. The additional benefit is the state’s ability to locate missing horses.

For theft prevention purposes, this method is best used in conjunction with a brand. Your brand is visible prima facie evidence and electronic ID is invisible proof of ownership.

Law enforcement agencies believe electronic ID can close the gap between reasonable doubt and insufficient evidence. The individual computer compatible numbers can be entered (from a theft report) and easily retrieved from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) by law enforcement and livestock investigators.

This method is the least expensive and also can be inserted into saddles and other tack. Veterinarians generally charge $35 per head plus visit fee.

Lip Tattoo

Used by The Jockey Club Thoroughbred breed registry since 1946 in addition to blood typing and DNA as a means of identification, tattoos are placed on the inside of the upper lip of all horses at pari-mutuel tracks prior to racing. Lip tattoo is a service performed by a tattoo technician through the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB). Before applying the tattoo, the individual performing the service matches the certificate of registration by The Jockey Club with the horse. Other breeds require parentage verification prior to lip tattoo application. The fee is approximately $55 per head.

Lip tattoos wear well for approximately four to five years and fade over time.

Additional Methods of Equine ID

Blood Typing - Blood typing and its use in parentage verification date back to the late 1930s. It has been used in human medicine for solving parentage cases and assisting in police investigations. In horses, it has been a requirement by some breed organizations to qualify a horse for registration before racing.

Equine blood typing consists of two processes: serological, which identifies genetic blood group markers similar to the Rh and ABO blood groups in humans; and electrophoretic, which applies electrical potential to the blood sample. Because molecules of the same type within the blood can have genetic differences that cause them to have different electrical charges, their behavior in the electrical field separates them according to their genetic variances.

Blood typing for parentage verification is an elimination process, not confirmation; i.e., the blood tests will positively determine who the parents are not. Blood type cannot be altered by additional marking or surgical procedure.

DNA Testing  - DNA is the most basic molecule of inheritance or genes. It is ideal for parentage verification. Equine breed registries lead the way with increased usage of DNA testing for the identification of individual animals, parentage verification, and problem solving in cases of questionable parentage.

The immediate benefit to the horse owner will be that DNA tests don’t necessarily require someone to draw and ship blood to a laboratory. DNA can be extracted from any tissue. Mane and tail hairs or nasal swabs might become the standardized testing objects just because they are so easy to acquire. DNA samples don’t have to be handled as carefully as with current blood typing. For example, if a foal’s dam or sire dies without being blood typed, tissue from the deceased horse still can be used for DNA testing.

Check with your breed registration for specific requirements and to obtain DNA testing kits. Cost is approximately $160.

Natural Physical Marks (Signalments and Trichoglyphs) - Signalments and trichoglyphs are not meant as permanent ID, but are helpful markings to know about. However, you might need to explain these terms to the law enforcement agency taking your incident report.

Signalments refer to the horse’s natural color and markings. They are used most commonly on registration papers, health certificates, transfer of ownership papers, documents for horses in transport, and other quickly written notations. Of greatest value are the indications of unique markings about the head, legs, and body.

Trichoglyphs include cowlicks or hair whorls, which are unique patterns, sizes, and combinations in a horse’s hair. These differ from horse to horse. Cowlicks and hair whorls are found on the forehead, neck, and flank areas. They are difficult to see unless close to the horse.

Photographs-Good color photographs are a great addition to your chosen methods of equine and property ID, but don’t rely on them alone. Any color can be dyed; manes and tails can be shaved, docked, or made to hang on a different side. Missing horses which travel between auctions can appear different due to weight loss in transport.

Take pictures of your horse twice a year in order to include his summer and winter looks. Show the head, both sides, and all markings. Let the horse fill 75% of the photo. Do the same with your tack and equipment.

If you’ve ever had to look for a missing horse, a good clear picture can be a great tool.

Summary And Conclusion

Identification is the single most important factor as a theft deterrent and in proving ownership in any court of law. All methods of equine ID have strengths and weaknesses. The best methods for theft prevention today include branding, lip tattoo, and electronic ID.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) maintains an active interest and involvement with many current methods of identification. Ask your veterinarian to help you learn about the AAEP findings and its position on the new methods of equine ID. The AAEP looks at methods of ID used in forensics, science, technology, and personal ID. Methods being developed in these fields will serve equine health, welfare, and theft prevention, as well as assist in the tracking of criminals.

About the Author

J. Amelita Facchiano

J. Amelita Facchiano has a passion for equine health, welfare, and identification. She chairs the U.S. Animal Health Association Animal Welfare Committee, and she serves on infectious diseases and ID committees for USAHA, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and National Institute of Animal Agriculture. In addition, Facchiano chairs the Equine Species Working Group ID committee. She also wrote Horse Theft Prevention Handbook, available at

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