Every day, horse theft affects unsuspecting owners like Robert Lyn-Kee-Chow. In Robert’s case, an open barn door was the first clue something might be wrong. He never dreamed the horses wouldn’t be in their stalls, but Brandy and Honky Tonk, prized polo ponies, had been stolen along with his truck, trailer and tack.

That was in December of 2004, and Robert and his friend Lauren Crowe are still sending out flyers and making contacts in the hopes it will one day bring the girls home. After taking some time from work to find Brandy and Honky Tonk, they still find it hard to concentrate on life.

“Is there something else I could do?” Lauren asks. “Someone else I can call? I hate second guessing myself like this but I feel like the girls fell off the face of the earth. How can a truck, trailer, two horses and all that tack just disappear?

“We’ve investigated all sorts of people and gone on trips whenever someone called and thought they’d seen something,” she continues. “We probably know every law enforcement officer in the South. We’ll continue to look but are at a loss as to where to go next.”

My family knows how Robert and Lauren feel. Luckily, our stolen mare Idaho was recovered in Tennessee nearly a year after her theft. We decided to fight back with the most useful tool we know of – education. We started Stolen Horse International, Inc. (SHI) to help others recover their horses and protect themselves from theft.

Are you at risk?

Horses are most commonly taken from barns and pastures, but horse shows and busy stables where there’s a great deal of traffic can also be a “shopping center” for horses, tack and trailers.

Horse thieves know what they’re looking for and they have a plan. If caught, they may face a felony charge but the penalties, anything from probation to a few years in jail, don’t frighten them. They ride the roads checking out pastures, sometimes even taking pictures for buyers who have prearranged the purchase of a specifically marked horse.

In one of our cases, an Andalusian gelding was stolen from California. Three years later, the horse showed up in Connecticut, identified by the microchip in his neck. After tracing back through the owners of the horse it was found that he was sold to the first buyer before he was actually stolen from the original owner!

Help keep your horse safe

The following abbreviated tips from my book Horse Theft, Been There – Done That, will help lessen your chances of being the next target. They’ll make it a lot harder for thieves to get to your horse, and you’ll also be prepared in the event that he is stolen.

1. Identification is vital, so ID your horses now

•Current methods include freeze branding, freeze marking, microchips, tattoos, hot branding, hoof branding, DNA, blood typing, trichoglyphs (natural markings such as whirls or dimples), and signalment (detailed descriptions of distinctive features).
•Start an identification program yourself. Follow tips from your state identification plan if one exists.
•A picture speaks a thousand words. Keep color pictures with your records. Take photos for this season and again when the season changes. You need both sets for identification.
HINT: Does your horse lead and load on a trailer? If so, then he is an easy mark. Even if he’s “difficult”, he can become one of the missing.

2. Maintain records and keep them handy

•Bill of sale
•Breed registration papers
•Coggins test
•Horse identification registration papers
•Do you have any other records? Include those too.

3. Keep contact numbers up to date

•Farriers and veterinarians
•Nearest auctions and slaughter facilities
•Trainers and riding/4-H clubs
•Previous owners
•Law enforcement agencies
•Animal control and rescue organizations
•State veterinarian, livestock investigator and horse council
•Insurance carrier

4. Be very aware. It’s better to investigate a suspicious situation than find out too late that you should have.

  • Check your horses often.
  • Change your daily routine so you are not predictable.
  • Pay attention to your horse’s patterns in the pasture and be cautious if there is a change.
  • Post a security sign on your property stating that your horses are permanently identified.
  • Start a neighborhood watch program. Educate your neighbors about horse theft.
  • Be suspicious of people with the wrong address or those asking questions about your horses.
  • Write down the license plate numbers and descriptions of strange vehicles riding through your neighborhood. Encourage neighbors to do the same.
  • Leave a Farm Watch notice with your neighbors when on vacation.
  • Include vital contact information about your trip, caregivers, police and veterinarians while you are gone.

HINT: The first 24 to 48 hours after a theft are critical. Being organized equals efficiency.

5. Cause a delay.

Thieves like to work quickly, so anything that causes delays in getting the horse is a deterrent.

  • Remove halters from horses and do not hang them by stall doors.
  • Install spotlights with motion sensors around the barn.
  • Install alarm systems in barn and on fence; post signs.
  • Surveillance cameras can also be valuable in your barn.
  • Keep fences in good repair and use padlocks and heavy chains on your gates.
  • Turn the top hinge pin on gateposts down to prevent the gate from being removed easily.
  • Post warning and no-trespassing signs.
  • Keep noisy animals on your property such as a barking dog, guinea hen or donkey.
  • Don’t leave trailers parked near horses and have a trailer lock so it cannot be hooked up easily.

If you own a horse you are vulnerable to theft, no matter where you live. Taking the correct precautions will help prevent you from becoming a victim.

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Dona Irvin, whose school horse was taken March 10, 2007, knows how easy it is to have your horse stolen. Thieves must have known exactly what they wanted when they crept onto Black Hawk College campus in Kewanee, Illinois and stole Sizzle, an 18-year old strawberry red roan quarter horse mare. Three people were seen on a surveillance video stealing the horse. “Sizzle is the best college horse we have ever had,” says Dona. “She has been an icon of our Black Hawk Equestrian program. She jumps, does equitation, horsemanship, trail, rail and barrels. We have used her in the program for at least 13 years, and she has assisted over 500 students. There is no monetary value that can be linked to her educational value.” Luckily, Sizzle has a better chance than many of being recovered because of her unusual coloring and her ID.