Is equestrian theft on the rise? “There’s no doubt about it with the numbers that we’re getting,” says Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horse International. Follow along as we discuss the savviest ways, old school to high-tech, to protect horse and barn.
By Jane Carlton
Horses, and their tack, represent a large investment—of time, money, and heart. But keeping those assets safe and secure is increasingly complicated. In the past few years, there have been news reports of Tad Coffin saddles lifted at a HITS show in Virginia, a bay gelding stolen and slaughtered in Miami, and most notably, a Grand-Prix show jumper stolen and butchered in Palmetto, FL.
SAFE AND SOUND
Barns are often considered safe havens for humans, but what about the security of our equine partners? Theft, kidnapping, and, in the worst cases, stealing a horse to butcher it for meat, are all real, present threats. Debbie Stephens, an international show jumping champion, unfortunately knows this firsthand. On October 25, 2015, a horse Stephens had recently imported was stolen and butchered, later found on her Palmetto property. “You have to realize—which I didn’t, and I don’t think anyone does—how unbelievably [prevalent] this is,” Stephens says. “There are more horses [butchered] than we ever hear of or we ever know. They’re usually stolen, just like my horse, and butchered or filleted off the premises.”
Valuable items such as saddles are also a common target for theft. Metcalfe warns that with most tack theft, the victim has seen the perpetrator in the barn before. “Most of the people who’ve had tack stolen out of their barns—they’ve had the people in [the barn before],” Metcalfe says. “They know what they’re getting.” High-end saddles are an obvious target, but anything is game when it comes to stealing.
While it’s not necessary to become overly paranoid, it’s easier to equip your barn for the unexpected than you may think.
To best protect a barn, it helps to think like a criminal. “You have to look at it from the criminal’s point of view, not your point of view,” Stephens advises. “[Criminals] aren’t going to come in the main driveway,” she continues. “They’re going to look for where there’s a good exit strategy. They want to get in and get out quickly.” So what can a barn owner do to keep her herd safe? Security cameras, lighting, and loud noises are all useful deterrents for criminals tempted to tamper with horses or tack.
After tragedy struck Stephens’ equestrian center, she installed a high-precision security system to protect her remaining horses. “When you get anywhere near the stall, like your hand was going to open it, it’s a sequential beam so you would immediately set the alarm off,” she says. “Lights go blinking, there’s a huge audible signal, the police are called, and whatever people you have designated—that alarm will go off on their cell phones immediately.”
While elaborate measures undoubtedly lend peace of mind for horse owners, human-scale measures have great value as well. In the spirit of it-takes-a-village, Metcalfe suggests starting a farm watch community, where owners and friends watch each other’s barns for suspicious behavior. “If you have a strange trailer that keeps coming by, don’t just think that it’s a trailer,” she warns. “The people that come first are often in cars. If someone keeps coming, make sure that’s reported to your watch.”
PLAN OF ACTION
Understandably, not every barn owner has the funds to install a sophisticated system. A simple surveillance system won’t empty pockets, and fake security cameras can even be bought online to give the appearance of being watched. While it’s not necessary to take out a second mortgage to equip a barn with cameras, skimping won’t help in the long run. “There’s nothing worse than having a video of someone stealing something and you [can’t see] who they are,” says Dave Fickenscher of Riverwind Surveillance Supply. Wired camera systems tend to work better for security because of the high resolution, Fickenscher says.
Bright lighting is imperative to keep out wrongdoers. “Criminals don’t like lighting,” Stephens hammers home. “It’s really important to have floodlights or lights everywhere.” Large, motion sensor floodlights—set in places where criminals would likely access—are a great tool, Stephens says. Since horses like to sleep in the dark, the motion sensors keep the lights off at night while still startling an intruder.
Big, barking dogs easily scare off potential thieves. Lacking in the canine department? Speakers pre-recorded with intimidating barks and howls can be purchased online, Stephens says.
Not unlike an ADT sign at the bottom of a house’s driveway, putting up a sign in front of the barn signaling that horses and tack have permanent identification is an easy—and inexpensive—way to fend off thieves. “Whether they do or they don’t doesn’t really matter, but law enforcement says that the sign is your first defense,” Metcalfe says. A sign pointing out that guests (wanted or not) are under 24-hour surveillance isn’t a bad idea, either.
For tack and equipment, don’t rely on a serial number. “Law enforcement has long said that if you put your state and driver’s license information on the bottom [of your tack], if it’s recovered, they can call you,” Metcalfe says. Stamping tack with a phone number also works, as long as the method is permanent. It isn’t only the sophisticated strategies that deter thieves—something as simple as a phone number and a Sharpie or the trusting of a gut feeling can help prevent the loss of our most prized possessions.
Many horse owners are turning to technology to safeguard their animals. The U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) announced that all horses competing in classes that require U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association horse registration in order to compete for points, money won, or awards were required to be microchipped as of December of 2017. According to Metcalfe, microchips run anywhere from $25 to $125, and are valuable assets in horse security. We chatted with Summer Stoffel, a member of the USEF Horse Recording & ID Task Force, to get the macro info on microchipping.
EJ: What role do microchips play in the life of a show horse?
SS: The ability to positively identify a horse protects not only the horse, but all those connected to the horse. The owner has assurance that the horse he or she is purchasing is indeed the one he or she believes it to be. The rider knows the horse’s level of experience, and pedigree information can provide insight to the type of ride or level of talent the horse may possess. Additionally, should a horse fall into a situation of neglect or potential slaughter, traceability through a microchip can alert previous owners to the situation and the horse can be given a chance to survive.
EJ: Do microchips help in a stolen horse situation?
SS: Microchips can assist when a horse is stolen as the horse’s identity cannot be changed and the horse can be traced back to its true owner.
EJ: What is the process like for getting a microchip implanted?
SS: Microchips are implanted by a veterinarian into a horse’s nuchal ligament, which is just below the mane and about halfway between the poll and withers on the left side. Editor’s note: Microchips can also be implanted by a horse’s owner, though it’s a precise process. Talk to your veterinary professional for detailed information.