horse theft

Horse theft is a very real threat. Find out how to protect your equine partner, and what to do if he gets stolen.

Girls and horses seem to have a special connection. No one knows it better than Kaitlynn Bilskie, whose 14-year-old paint barrel horse, Max, was stolen from her two years ago.

I asked Kaitlynn how she felt about Max’s theft. Her reply tells the story of almost every missing horse victim I have spoken to over the years. “I couldn’t concentrate in school, focus on homework, watch TV or even go to sleep without thinking about him,” she says. “He’s my best friend and my whole life. You can’t just pretend it never happened or search for a few months and forget about it.”

Just over a year after Max was stolen, a phone call to Kaitlynn’s stepfather brought the good news the family had been hoping and waiting for. “A lady had seen a flyer posted by my Internet friend, Jody, in Missouri,” says Kaitlynn, who lives in Illinois. “I was so excited I couldn’t hold still! We needed a miracle, and it was a miracle we got.”

With all the busyness we experience in our daily lives, we often don’t think about protecting our horses from theft. But we need to. The recession has not only spurred cutbacks and layoffs – it has also increased the risk of theft. With the economy still weak, security pros have seen a spike in old-time thievery. And what do people steal in recessionary times? Pretty much anything, including horses!

Don’t Become a Statistic

Horse theft is big business for thieves, who will steal a horse right out of your pasture; or for con artists, who use laws to their advantage in fraudulent contracts and verbal agreements.

In the late 1990s, a study completed in Texas stated that approximately 40,000 horses were stolen each year. That estimate has probably gone up since then, and I bet not one of those horse owners thought it would ever happen to them.

On September 26, 1997, I became one of those statistics – and I never thought it would happen to me either. I didn’t even know people stole horses! If someone had told me horse theft was common, I would have dismissed it because “we never hear about it in the news.”

A Slap on the Wrist

What happens to horse thieves when they’re caught? I’d like to tell you that justice is served and the bad guys go off to jail. Unfortunately, that seems to be the exception instead of the rule, based on the cases we’ve seen at, a site that works with horse owners to increase awareness, promote precautionary measures to deter theft, and establish procedures and resources when theft occurs.

In the old days, horse theft was a hanging offense. Because horses were costly and highly coveted, they frequently became targets of theft. Ranchers feared thieves and always guarded their animals. It was not uncommon for people to take the law into their own hands when their horses were stolen, and to punish the thieves on the spot. Considered lowdown and dirty, many a horse thief took a one-way trip to the hanging tree.

Nowadays, horse owners are complacent about theft prevention, which makes it easy for them to become victims. Horse theft always happens to someone else, right? Wrong! Sometimes it happens to you.

Theft Deterrents

How do you keep your horse from being stolen? There are no guarantees, but there are deterrents that will help discourage a thief or at least slow down his attempts to take your horse.

1. Put warning signs up to ward off intruders.
2. Start a neighborhood “horse watch” in your community.
3. Ask close neighbors and friends for a “horse sitter” when you go away.
4. Do not leave home for extended periods without having someone stay on your property.
5. Bolt your gates.
6. Put up motion lighting as well as a farm light on the property.
7. Add “animal alarms” to your farm such as barking dogs, guineas, donkeys or peacocks.
8. Add video cameras or deer cam surveillance to your property
9. Give your horses visible ID as well as a microchip number. One may deter the thieves from your property and the other can identify your horse if the worst happens.
10. Move horses closer to your house when sleeping and away from roads or easy entry to your property.
11. Remove bushes or equipment that may act as protective cover for someone on your property. 12. Report suspicious activity to law enforcement. Make sure you get license plate numbers from vehicles. Use your cell phone to record pictures of vehicles, plates and people.

ID and Record Keeping

It used to be that most horses were branded or tattooed for identification, but not anymore. Why should you identify your horse? There are reasons other than theft, such as natural disasters and fraud prevention. Horse owners should think about permanently marking horses, tack and other equine equipment. Below are some of the ways to identify a horse:

• Freeze brands
• Microchip
• Hot brand • Hoof brand
• Lip tattoos
• Freezemark
• DNA • Blood
• Recording natural markings or imperfections

Well-organized, updated horse records are also useful during a recovery process. You should keep good and easily accessible pictures, Coggins, a bill of sale, vet records, any breed registrations, ID registrations and an emergency contact list.

If the worst happens recommends that horse owners be familiar with what to do if a horse is stolen or missing. Here are a few helpful tips:

• Take action fast! Time is critical!
• Check your enclosure carefully. Are there any other hazards that could cause the horse to go missing, such as pits, sinkholes, cliffs or mud bogs? Is there evidence the horse has been stolen (cut fencing, grain on the grass)?
• Check with neighbors to see if they witnessed suspicious activity.
• Once you are sure your horse is truly missing, call authorities immediately.
• If you see evidence that your horse may have been stolen, stay away from the area. Do not tamper with any physical evidence.
• Get a copy of the police report and keep it with you.
• Contact Stolen Horse International/
• Keep a record of all phone calls and correspondence.
• Think of your search as a business. Keep meticulous records.
• Once your information is listed on, post the link and information on internet list groups, Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, MySpace ect.

Never Underestimate the Power of One

When the report of a stolen/missing horse is confirmed, and its volunteers spring into action. An alert is issued, a globally transmitted notice of the missing/stolen horse that includes a flyer, pictures, description, and key information that might help with recovery.

Volunteers post and distribute flyers, attend horse events and auctions, and send encouraging messages to victims. As the information travels, other people become aware of the thefts and the horses are often found. Frequently, people receiving one of our alerts aren’t official NetPosse members but pass on the information because they want to help.

Random acts of kindness from people around the world assisted my family for nearly a year in the search for our own horse. Then last October, a little girl in Missouri posted a flyer at a farm show her family was attending. It was seen by someone who knew the location of the stolen horse, and we got him back.

Of the thousands of horse theft cases I have dealt with over the past eleven years, many have had happy endings. For those unsolved, we continue to search for the horses until they are found and the owners have closure.

So the next time you hear or read about a missing horse, don’t assume he’s gone for good and will never be found. You can make a difference, just like that little girl in Missouri. After all, can you honestly say the same thing won’t happen to you?

Debi Metcalfe founded Stolen Horse International, Inc. ( after a family horse, Idaho, was stolen in 1997. Her extensive search for the horse, and discovery that no structured system for finding stolen or missing horses existed, motivated her to develop one. Now, helps to reunite horses with their riders through widespread networking on websites, Facebook, through e-mail, fliers, and more.