Horse security

Out the gate and gone: Horse owners need to do everything possible to deter thieves.

Protect your riding gear and horses from thieves

January 23, 2007

The theft of horses and their expensive gear is an ever-present threat. Neil Clarkson looks at ways to deter would-be thieves and rustlers.

Halters and leadropes do not belong
over a fence. Keep them locked away
unless in use.

It would be nice to think that everyone in the horse community is honest.

Sadly, it's not the case. Horses - and the collection of gear that accompanies them - are valuable, and pretty much anything with value runs the risk of being stolen.

Horse theft used to be a hanging offence in most US states. The internet would have you believe it's still on the books in some jurisdictions.

Some horse lovers may well think the punishment still fits the crime, but in these more moderate times penalties are not the deterrent they used to be.

In short, we all need to look after Number One.

Security is centred on a pretty uncharitable principle: You're basically banking on the hope that a thief will decide it's easier to steal someone else's horse or tack than your own.

There is much a horse owner can do to protect their possessions, and persuade thieves to look elsewhere.

Understand your enemy

Thieves will tend to look for the straightforward option. As a policeman once pointed out, when it's raining or cold outside, burglars will stay at home and watch TV just like the rest of us.

How can we use this to our advantage?

Thieves seek out easy targets. Why try and break into a vehicle when an unlocked one is nearby? Why force entry to the back of someone's truck for a saddle when someone has left theirs unlocked, or a saddle unattended over a hitching rail at a show? Why break into a locked tack shed when others choose to leave theirs unlocked?

Anything you can do to make a thief's life harder will help. Padlock the road gate. Lock the paddock gate as well. Have the electric fencing turned on.

Why leave a halter on a horse and a lead-rope draped over the gate? Have you left your float nearby and ready to go, just to complete the picture?

Understand your risk

The risk is higher if your horses graze a roadside paddock. The busier the road the greater the risk. If you live away from the paddock, you stand an even greater chance of being a victim of theft.

A good and regularly updated photographic record of your horses is essential.

LEFT: Whorls have long been used in identifying horses. It would be hard to find this unusual combination on another animal.
RIGHT: A linear whorl. Make sure your pictures show precisely where each whorl is located.

Freeze-branding: A key means of identification.

Identifying your horse

We can all spot our own horses at 400 paces, but a policeman inquiring into your horse's disappearance will have trouble distinguishing a liver chestnut from a brown, or even a bay from a chestnut. While people who live around horses easily identify different colours, body-shapes and faces, a policeman with no horse experience will probably only see a large brown animal with a long head and a leg at each corner.

You need a good photographic record of your horses. Get both sides, and front and rear shots. Make sure all distinguishing marks are clearly visible, including scars and whorls. Get as many close-ups as you need to record the key ones, preferably in pictures that reveal their location. Whorls have long been used to identify horses and come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and locations. The simple whorl is most common, but there are tufted ones, linear ones, crested varieties, not to mention feathered and sinous whorls.

You should update your photographs at least every six months to take in winter and summer coats.

Writing images to computer disk will be fine, but shoot good, high-resolution images. If the theft of your beloved horse makes the local newspaper, they may want a good quality image. Tiny picture sizes just won't reproduce. Write the images to two disks and store them in safe (and separate) places. For added security, make a written note of all markings.

Whether you love or hate branding, it does help your horse stand out. The choices are hot-iron and freeze branding. The latter will be most comfortable for your horse. It's something your vet can do while gelding a young horse for very little additional cost.

If you don't have a registered brand, your local equine vet should have one he or she can use on your behalf.

The size, shape and position of scars can be a unique identifying characteristic.
Microchipping is becoming more popular, particularly with thoroughbreds. Tattooing an indentification number inside the lip is becoming more common overseas, but has yet to get a following here.

Burning an identification number into a hoof is also becoming common practice overseas. It's easy and painless, but needs to be done regularly as the hoof grows out.

With the cost of DNA testing dropping all the time, why not keep a sample of your horse's DNA in a dated and sealed envelope? Simply pull up to a dozen hairs from low on the mane, ensuring some of the root material is intact. Some international breed registries keep such samples on file without testing them. They would only do so in the event of an identification or parentage query.

Basically, a well-identified horse is less likely to be stolen than one without such markings. The choice is yours.

The media can help

The theft of a large and beloved pet may well interest the local media - that's why you need good, high-resolution photographs of your pet. If you have suspicions about who may be behind the theft, do not share them with a reporter - or even your friends, for that matter.

Discuss them with the police officer looking into the case. It is wise to mention to the police that you intend talking to the media, just in case they have a positive line of inquiry and feel the publicity may hamper what they're doing.

Is the horse yours?

A number of "thefts" arise from ownership disputes. The best thing you can do is pay for the horse - even if the existing owner wants to give it to you. Give them $100 and seek a signed receipt. Carry out any breed association paperwork to change ownership. If you're not getting the horse's papers, find out why. Does the person selling the horse have them? If not, are they the rightful owner and able to sell the horse?

Secure your gates, and use only good quality padlocks.

The best chain and padlock in the world will be little use if thieves can lift the gate off its gudgeons at the other end. Either reverse the top gudgeon, as shown here, or weld on plates to stop the gate being lifted off.

Is your property inviting to a thief?

Try to establish your stables, tie-up areas and other horse facilities away from the road. If you can put your house between the roadside and your horse facilities, you've created a big deterrent.

If you can't get away from the road, fence them off and lock the gate. People should not be able to walk straight off the road to your horse facilities. Stables, tack sheds and the like should be locked, where possible. If you have an open hay shed, don't leave anything of reasonable value there.

Anything that makes it harder for thieves will reduce the chances of you becoming a victim. Don't leave everything open while you head off for a 30-minute ride.

Other strategies

If you lease the paddocks, mix up the times when you visit. This will stop anyone watching your paddock from learning your routine.

Feed your horses well away from the entrance gate, which you should keep locked at all times. You don't want your equine friends gathering at the exit two hours before dinnertime every day, making it easy for a thief to load them up and carry them off.

Remember, there's little point in locking a gate if it can be lifted off the hinges at the other end. Mount the top gudgeon upside down, or have plates welded on the tops.

Wooden fences are generally more secure than wire ones. A thief can cut through a wire fence quickly and easily if they have the right tools with them.

Your halters and leadropes should live in your locked vehicle or in a secure shed, not over the fence or gate. Do not leave a halter on a horse.

Tack needs to be marked. Use an indelible marker, a burning tool, or a leather stamp to identify your gear. Keep a photographic record.

Mark your tack

Have you added up its value lately? It needs to be permanently marked in some way. An indelible marker in an out-of-sight spot is a good start, but, better still, you can use leather stamps or burn or engrave a name or phone number into a unseen spot. A name is good. Some people use a vehicle plate number, but be sure it's a keeper.

If you intend stamping or burning identification details, make sure you do it somewhere that won't affect the strength or integrity of the item.

Don't put your cellphone number if you change it every couple of years.

Like your horses, have a good photographic record of all gear. This is essential if you're a "hoarder" and have an unusually large number of saddles, bridles, or bits. Otherwise, your insurance company might take some convincing that you have six saddles and only one horse.

Protect that float

Floats need protecting. They're expensive to replace and plenty get stolen. Where possible, park it out-of-sight from the road. They can be secured with chains, but most chains are surprisingly easy to cut with even quite small bolt-cutters.

Invest in a device that locks your float's coupling. Keep your float out of sight of the road, and preferably in a locked compound.

A number of key-operated devices are available that lock the tow coupling in some way.

Visit your local automotive supplies shop and decide which one will be best for you.

Quality is important. If a padlock features in your security equation, avoid the budget ones. You have to pay for quality.

If your float is in a locked compound, a thief will find it much harder to get his towing vehicle to it.

Does your float have a removeable jockey wheel? Store it away from the float.

Make sure your insurance cover on your float accurately reflects the cost involved in replacing it.

Know thy neighbour

Look after each other. Become familiar with local vehicles. Note down the number plates of unknown or suspicious vehicles, particularly if they're cruising the road slowly.

Always note the number plate when an uninvited stranger turn up, even if they seem legitimate and are looking for the neighbour's house.

Check on each other's stock if a neighbour is going to be away. Any activity around a vacant property is good.

Show them you mean business

Have "no trespassing" notices or signage that orders people to report to the house.

The price of security cameras and alarms have been dropping in recent years. Maybe they're within your budget now? Fake security cameras are even cheaper, and the bluff may just work!

Sensor lights are a big deterrent to nocturnal thieves.

What if I'm a victim?

Try not to interfere with the scene as you may destroy fingerprints. Report the theft to the police immediately. Provide good quality pictures of your horse or tack to the authorities.

Talk to neighbours about any unusual people or vehicles they may have seen and provide any useful information to the police. If your horse is missing, talk to local horse-transport firms. Keep an eye out for your horse or gear on internet auction sites. Check the classified advertisements in your local newspaper and any free-ad publications each week.

Let as many of your horsey friends as possible know what's been stolen and ask them to keep their eyes open. Remember: If you have suspicions, only talk them over with the police.

The local media may take an interest in events, but check with the police first.

Don't provide an opportunity

Finally, don't give opportunistic thieves a chance. The best security arrangements will count for little if you leave your car and tack shed unlocked while you take a half-hour ride around the block. Lock it up, and be careful out there.