At night, the thieves boldly parked their trailer at a pasture near our home. They cut through a barbed wire fence and led our paint mare, Idaho, to the trailer and whisked her away. Criminals who plan such a burglary often plan in advance. They may drive down a peaceful dirt road, seemingly admiring the countryside. That person may be a thief scouting out your horse and planning the crime. They may even take pictures.
Hoof prints and tire tracks were still visible on the dirt road the next morning, but our 12-year-old pleasure horse was gone. It was like losing a family member. We stood there and cried. Fifty-one weeks after Idaho was stolen, we tracked her down and brought her home.
Many people thought we would never see her again – and there were times we thought the same. But we had hope. After she was taken, we found out that horse thievery was a crime on the rise. What happened to us was not unique.
Each year, about 55,000 horses are snatched by bands of thieves who often work one area or state then move on when authorities start to close in. Rustling horses is quick, profitable and dirty work. Most horse thieves swiftly unload their stolen animals at auction, where most of the creatures end up at slaughter.
Searching for Idaho ... Finding an Issue
Authorities say reports of horse thefts are on the rise. They describe the typical criminal as a small-time wheeler dealer taking advantage of a hot-market, rising slaughter prices or just to make an easy buck on a quick sale. Family riding horses (instead of expensive breeds) are the prime targets. Horse theft can occur in many ways:
You may have your horse under lease in an out-of-state training barn. One day you get a call that your horse had been injured and died, and the body disposed of already.
At a horse show, someone offers to buy your horse. You accept the check on the spot without verifying it and never see your money or the horse again.
We soon found out that six horses from neighboring counties had been stolen around the time Idaho was taken. In one case, a young girl found a man in the pasture with her horse. She yelled for her mom, who quickly came onto the scene. He didn't have a trailer with him, but he didn't need one. With a cell phone, he could call for a horse trailer after he found a vulnerable horse. In this case, the theft was prevented.
We quickly learned that law enforcement agencies often do not communicate with each other across county lines concerning stolen horses. We realized that if our horse was going to be found, we would have to do most of the work.
On the Trail
During the year, we contacted innumerable horse traders, auctioneers, feed stores, sales barns, etc. We turned to the Internet and got the email addresses for people who cared about horses. We asked everybody to pass along our email to others. The response was overwhelming. We gradually built a network of folks hunting for stolen horses. From Pennsylvania to Texas, people kept a lookout at weekly sales and traded tips on the Internet.
Our letters included a plea to help us print and put up flyers, create stolen-horse sections on Web pages and to include our story in horse publications.
The horse media published information about Idaho and wrote occasional stories on horse thievery. News media soon covered our story. We went to many sales and covered windshields with flyers. We shared the information we collected on stolen horses with our state Horse Council, which represents breeders and other horse-related associations. The council alerted the Department of Agriculture, which issued a warning to horse owners about the rising risk of horse theft. Our mission had developed into a nationwide awareness campaign.
The growing network led to the recovery of stolen horses. Police attributed the increasing success rate to the network and the leads they received from people who saw the information on the Internet.
Seven months later, we were hot on the thieves' trail. We discovered that three days after Idaho was stolen she was sold to a sale barn in Tennessee. The sale owner said he knew the horse had been stolen and returned it to the thief to get his money back.
A major break came with the arrest of a man in North Carolina who had two stolen horses and a stolen trailer (from our town) in his possession. The information in this case led to another man, this time in Cleveland, Tennessee, who was the last known person to have possession of Idaho.
On Labor Day weekend, Harold and I decided to take a spontaneous trip. My mother had died a couple of weeks earlier and we just needed to get away. We ended up in Cleveland, Tennessee on Sunday, putting up fliers. As luck would have it, we passed a rodeo sign with the name of the sale barn where Idaho was first sold.
When we stopped at a convenience store, we handed the clerk our last flyer. One week later, we received a call from someone who saw the flyer and recognized our horse. His information led to east Tennessee, where authorities say Idaho changed hands several times and wound up with a family that was unaware the horse was stolen.
We called the Tennessee State Cattle/Horse Livestock officer handling our case. He called back and said the horse trader identified the horse in our flyer as the one he sold to the family. We immediately rushed back to Tennessee.
We were to identify the horse from a video the following day. After a sleepless night of channel surfing, we watched the video. When we saw her from across a show ring, both of said at the same time, "That's her!!"
The sheriff's department seized Idaho from the family and led her to a church parking lot, where we were waiting. The daughter of the couple had grown attached to Idaho, and had won state and national awards at horse shows. Reclaiming the horse from the little girl was very hard. There were tears shed on both sides of the issue that day.
We are very thankful to the family who took good care of our horse. We were sorry it turned out to be a nightmare for them as well. It was unfortunate for us all to have this thief march into our lives that September night. In the end, everyone suffered, including the thief, who is currently serving time.
Most people never hear of the number of horses stolen across the United States. There is still little publicity about this growing illicit business. We hope to change that. A lack of awareness by many owners gives horse thieves the upper hand in the fight.
But to people who experience this crime, don't think your horse will never be found. Never underestimate the power of one family.
For more information about horse theft, please visit the website "Stolen Horse International" at http://www.netposse.com.