Imagine the horror of going to your horse’s paddock or his stall at a show and not hearing that familiar nicker. If this happens, you’ve got to move fast. Immediate, unrelenting action by you is the only chance you have of finding your horse. While you must involve the police, the fact is you’re the only one who really cares that your horse was stolen. It’s up to you.
J. Amelita Donald, the author of Horse Theft Prevention Handbook, emphasizes that the first 24 hours after the horse is stolen are the most crucial. Call your local law-enforcement officer right away and insist upon help and a case number. Horse theft is a non-violent crime and will likely be given a low priority unless you continue to insist otherwise.
Give law enforcers a complete description of the horse and enlist the aid of friends to cover areas with flyers and word of mouth. Hit auctions and sale barns immediately. Paper tack stores, feed stores, even gas stations and highway rest stops.
If your state uses brand inspectors, contact them so they can be on the lookout for your horse and brand. Contact local farriers, trainers, veterinarians and anyone who works with horses — don’t overlook people like equine massage practitioners, dental technicians and shavings/feed dealers — and give them flyers with your information and a photograph of your horse.
When you look for your horse, remember that even a brief time of distress can alter a horse’s appearance, since dehydration can lead to major weight loss. Also, a thief may cut your horse’s tail, use dye or other appearance-altering changes.
Spread The Word
Evaluate local sales. Reputable horse sales are often advertised in publications well ahead of their dates. They may have catalogs available in advance, brand inspectors on site and are often attended by a community of people familiar with each other and the local horse population. These sales can provide excellent opportunities for you to tell people about your missing horse as well as a chance for you to seek him.
The more hastily set-up sales, however, don’t always have security features. Believe it or not, they are often held after sundown, publicized by word of mouth, and held in shifting locations. At these types of sales, look in every trailer as well as in the sale itself. Keep in mind that a thief will be fueled by haste in transferring horses.
Alert as many slaughterhouses and rendering plants as you can find about your horse and be sure they have a complete description and photograph of him. Horse owners living near the Mexican or Canadian borders should increase their search to slaughterhouses in those countries.
Involve your veterinarian, as he or she is may be able to help deal with authorities. Proof of ownership is key and includes breed registration papers, microchip information, brand proof and so on. A thief can alter a brand and have fake registration papers that may make it difficult for a law authority to determine who is telling the truth.
If you offer a reward, specify that it is toward the arrest and conviction of the thief. You want the person who collects a reward to also appear in court during the prosecution.
While wiping out horse stealing may be impossible, there are ways in which you can help prevent theft. Photography may help identify a horse as yours, but it is not infallible. A photograph is not going to be proof of ownership in a court of law. Nevertheless, keep current photographs of your horse on hand to give to authorities. Be sure they depict him with his winter and summer coats and take close-ups of any markings or scars. Update these yearly. Write down and/or photograph every little thing that makes your horse unique. Even a distinguishing cowlick or scar can serve as an identifier. Videorecordings can also help.
Keep your stable property well lit. A security gate, which requires a code to enter, is an expensive but effective way to limit traffic through your barn.
Vary routines, so thieves can’t pinpoint a time they know no one will be at the stable. Padlocks on paddocks definitely help deter crime — just remember to padlock the hinge side, too, if the hinges are easy to take off. You may want to consider a guard dog or even a donkey. Any animal that makes noise can act as a deterrent to a thief.
Also, be careful with what information you post on your horse’s stall. Letting everyone know his parentage may make it easier for a robber to pose as his owner.
Identification makes your horse harder to steal. Both a brand and electronic identification like a microchip — which is implanted in the horse’s nuchal ligament in the neck — are prima facie evidence of ownership. Your veterinarian can implant a microchip for you.
While some owners may balk at the unsightliness of a brand, a brand is something you can see from a distance so you can readily identify your horse. Also, branded horses have a better chance of being recognized by a brand inspector at a sale. Only Texas, however, requires brands be checked.
In the future, technological advances like retinal scanning may become more common, but for now, branding remains one of the most effective methods of identifying horses. Brands are usually registered with the International Livestock ID Association and state cattle associations, which are also listed with the Texas & SW Cattle Raiser Association (TSCRA).
Most horse owners are familiar with hot ranch branding. It is painful, and the hair does not grow back. It was used more extensively in the past — and still is in some areas — but there are better choices.
Freeze branding is non-invasive and not as painful. The hair grows back in white (on light horses, you leave the branding irons on longer and the result looks like a hot brand). Freeze brands have to be kept clipped in the winter because shaggy coats make them hard to see. Also, you need to make sure the brand you choose is yours alone by checking with your county records clerk and cattle associations. Be certain to register your brand with the TSCRA in Texas, regardless of where you live or the breed of your horse. While there is a fee, this is one of the largest brand registries in the United States.
The Alpha Angle System, which is actually also freeze branding, is used by the Bureau of Land Management. It looks like a strange series of symbols, but someone who knows how to read it can verify breed, age and registration of the horse.
To find someone in your area to brand your horse, try contacting your veterinarian, your state cattlemen’s association, your state horse extension specialist, state horse council, state department of agriculture or livestock. You can also check Western magazines that list advertisers who offer freeze-brand irons and freeze-brand services. While a brand can be altered by a crafty thief, a good forensic department can determine that the brand was altered — and often even when in the horse’s life the change was made.
Finding your horse is really up to you. No one else will do it to the same degree. Prevention remains key. Consider freeze branding with microchips as a backup. Apply preventative techniques, such as padlocking paddocks, getting a guard dog or donkey, and varying your routine. Above all, be aware of your surroundings and watch for oddities.
Horse Theft Prevention Handbook by J. Amelita Donald, published by The Blood-Horse Publications 800/582-5604, $9.95. All proceeds go to the American Association of Equine Practitioners Association (AAEP) Foundation.Texas A&M Publications Freeze Branding Horses L5084, Permanent ID of Horses L-521, 15 Steps to Miminize Theft of Horses, Property, Equipment L-5210, What to Do if Your Horse is Stolen L-5244. The publications are available free. Texas & SW Cattle Raiser Association, 800/242-7820, www.texascattleraisers.org;International Livestock ID Association, 303/294-0895;Missing Pet Network (all species) www.missingpet.net.