What Can We Do To Feel Safe?

It's dark out. You can't see, but you know the drill. You're used to it because it's always dark at 5:00 a.m. when you feed the horses. Yet, something is different about this morning. Maybe it's the sound of a gate left unlatched clanging against the post that gives you the chills before you even know what the sound is. The barn door is open. Why is that? It's never left open. You flip on the light. The scene before you unfolds in slow motion. You're so stunned, the picture doesn't register. The tingling begins right away, however. It starts at your toes and travels up through your body like electricity. You're hot. You're cold. You feel lightheaded...Everything is gone. Everything.

As tragic events have occurred over the past few years, jolting us out of our complacency, life as we've known it has undergone a radical change. Our need to protect and secure our environment has taken on a new meaning. No longer can we feel relaxed about strangers visiting our farms or arriving at our barns unannounced. Intrusions, while always a concern, in today's world seem to have intensified. Even well-intentioned neighbors or children can pose a threat by leaning over fences with "treats" in hand, or worse yet, wandering into our paddocks or fields. Everything from our horses to our possessions seems to be at risk. Whether you post a sign, put a lock on the tack room door, or have a gated security system, more than ever the challenge seems to be: How do I keep my horses and belongings in, and unwanted people out?

Horses at Risk

As a farm owner or stable manager, safeguarding your horses from danger and injury is likely to be your number one priority, although, often as not, spectators who stop to see the "pretty horses" mean no harm. However, their actions, no matter how innocently intended, could have serious consequences. Someone who casually reaches over the fence to pat a nose or to offer a carrot could trigger a power dispute between rival pasture mates, resulting in injuries to horse, person, or damage to the fence, for example. Posting your property with clearly marked warning signs should be enough to keep inquisitive passersby at a distance, avoiding the possibility of problems.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone is without malice, as it is estimated that roughly 40,000 horses are stolen each year. These statistics were compiled during the 1992-1993 Texas legislative session to determine the severity of horse theft and led to the creation of a Horse Inspection Program in Texas managed by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). Further information on this and other related subjects is available by visiting the National Institute of Animal Agriculture web site at www.animalagriculture.org.

Amelita Facchiano, author of the Horse Theft Prevention Handbook (available at 800/582-5604 or www.ExclusivelyEquine.com), states that contrary to popular belief that it's the big-ticket horses who are most vulnerable, horse theft encompasses all breeds and disciplines. The common denominator is the need for quick, easy money.

Considered a non-violent offense and--as crimes go--low on the priority list when compared to major felonies, it is no wonder that horse theft is an ongoing problem. The fact is that there's usually little hard evidence with which to identify a recovered horse, much less link the criminal with the crime. Even if a perpetrator is convicted, the consequences involve minor punishment.

Evidence compiled by investigators profiling the incidences of horses stolen nationwide serves as a warning to those who don't believe their animals are in danger. Horse theft is most likely a premeditated crime, and often daylight is not a deterrent. There are an increasing number of women involved, and the majority of thefts occur in regions that have dense equine populations as well as in states that have no horse inspection policy.

With the downturn in our economy, and little to fear from the law, this is a prime time for the unscrupulous to strike. Gone are the days when stealing a horse was a hangin' offense.

Protect Your Horse

Your best defense is to make it as difficult as possible for the intruder. While nothing is foolproof, by taking precautions, you might thwart an otherwise successful robbery attempt.

"To apply or implant identification is by far the most important weapon in your arsenal," says Bob Coleman, equine specialist with the University of Kentucky. "Even if you live in a state without an equine inspection program, to have your horse branded and with electronic ID as back-up, for instance, will help guarantee ownership rights upon your horse's recovery." (See "Horse Theft and Identification" in the January 2003 issue of The Horse, article #3619 at www.TheHorse.com, for a discussion of ID methods.)

Given that horse theft is known to be a calculated offense, it is a real possibility that steps could be taken to disguise your horse's appearance. Whether his coat is dyed, or he loses weight from stress, transport, or starvation, he might have changed so dramatically that he is no longer recognizable.

Facchiano advises horse owners to take color pictures twice a year showing the horse's summer and winter looks. In addition, feature both sides of his head and all his markings, including any scars. "Your horse's picture should fill at least 75% of the page to eliminate any possibility of doubt. If you have ever had to look for a missing horse, you know a good, clear picture can make all the difference," she emphasizes.

She also states that while up-to-date photographs are invaluable evidence, they will not stand alone in court. Therefore, the more information you have, the easier it will be to prove your case.

Be sure to keep all identification papers secure, yet accessible, as you will be required to confirm ownership when your horse is recovered. You will need to provide at least one of the following documents to authorities: A receipt of purchase, a bill of sale, and/or cancelled checks. In addition, retain all health certificates, Coggins tests, veterinary records, and any registration papers.

To Safeguard Your Property

In the eyes of law enforcement officials, not having your property or barn secured is a liability equivalent to that of leaving a running car unattended in a parking lot. Therefore, you must take steps to ensure your claim of theft should the unimaginable become a reality.

Time, light, noise, and visible ID are major deterrents to a thief, so when considering security measures, incorporate safeguards that address these factors. While robbery might be of little concern to facilities like Western States Ranch, a 3,200-acre Quarter Horse breeding farm in Dublin, Texas, it is due to the many employees who live on the property in addition to the night watchman who routinely patrols the grounds. Yet, even with continuous supervision, there is still talk of installing security gates with passkeys.

For the small farm owner or barn manager, high costs probably will preclude employing a guard or installing an expensive alarm system. Nevertheless, any way you can set up a barrier to shield your horse from intruders might be sufficient to protect them.

"Keeping in mind that speed is of the essence, a front gate with a sturdy lock and chain could be enough of a deterrent to prevent trouble," remarks Coleman. "Precious minutes could be lost while the intruder struggles to break the latch, for example, plus there is the added possibility of noise drawing attention to the site."

As simple as it would seem, the efficacy of this set-up alone could signal that your farm or facility is just too much trouble to break into. In addition, you might want to get a watchdog, and by posting warning signs that signal your intent to prosecute, you very well could ward off a break-in situation.

Coleman also calls attention to the importance of replacing barbed wire fencing with strong wire, metal, or wood. Easy to clip, barbed wire is hardly an obstacle, and when coupled with a dark night, "it's like taking a walk in the park to a thief."

He suggests trimming surrounding trees and bushes as well. Thieves often seek protection in darkness, so by removing the cover you could be removing the opportunity. You might want to install a lighting system, especially around paddocks. If you can afford infrared-based motion detectors in the barn or stable, you will have covered key areas in your efforts to secure your surroundings.

Ultimately, you might want to consider a professional security system, especially if no one lives on the property or you are in a high-risk area. While nothing is 100% effective, by installing an alarm, your message is absolutely clear: Keep out or face the consequences. Security experts say a thief prefers an "easy mark," so by making entry particularly forbidding, your chances of remaining safe are increased by 50-60%.

"Get to know your neighbors and associate with other horse people in your community," suggests Facchiano. "Share information, especially if you notice anything unusual."

She recommends setting up an Area Stable Watch network using the same awareness procedures employed by Neighborhood Crime Watch programs. "Observe the movements and behaviors of people with whom you're unfamiliar. Listen to the questions they (volunteers) ask and pay attention to the things they tell you. Take action by reporting suspicious individuals and incidents to law enforcement authorities."

To Secure Your Possessions

Coleman says that many of the same identification procedures that apply to your horse can apply to your possessions. Your name or an identification number (not your Social Security number) stamped onto your saddle, for example, provides a visible deterrent as well as proof positive that you are indeed the owner. There are also a variety of microchips that will emit a radio frequency for easy tracking. Plus, many of these devices are guaranteed for life, are impact-proof, and also are weather-resistant. In addition, there are a variety of locking systems that secure your saddle to a wall bracket, post, or rail for safekeeping in your tack room. And you certainly will want to padlock the door.

Always make sure to secure your trailer, even if it is insured. A hitch lock and wheel clamp are good starts. Having it marked or electronically tagged with a visible warning sign is an optimum choice for protection. There even are new tracking technologies developed to combine the use of solar power with links to your mobile phone.

A trailer is a high-priced item, and an easy target for a thief if it's left unprotected. Besides having to deal with your insurance company, not having access to your trailer could have serious repercussions.

Facchiano advises that you should never leave a halter on your horse, even if he is turned out. Keep the halter in a safe place away from the stall door or fence post, and vary your daily schedule to maintain a degree of unpredictability. "Why give a thief the tools to walk away with your horse?" she asks.

On the other hand, having a halter handy by the stall door or at the ends of the barn can help you in case of an emergency evacuation. Security and protection are a difficult balance, and decisions need to be made based on your particular situation.

As it's been said, the best defense is a good offense. Take steps to protect your horses and equipment in advance. Theft is a reality; it happens. The best you can do is not to let it happen to you.

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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