Protect Your Horse Property From Theft

Thefts happen in barns, at horse shows, and from pastures; here’s how to keep your animals , possessions, and people safe

You might sense it when you’re the last one at the boarding barn at night or when you’re about to leave your packed trailer unattended in a parking lot. Maybe it creeps in when you think of your horses and equipment alone at your farm or when your horse is stalled in a strange place at an event.  

The unwelcome visitor is uneasiness or even fear about whether your tack and equipment—not to mention your horse!—are safe from theft.

Security. It’s increasingly important in today’s world and for many reasons.  

Horses, tack, and trailers are stolen for resale on the Internet or to private parties. Horses are stolen and butchered for an illegal black market in horse meat or shipped across borders and sold to slaughterhouses. Horse owners are even at risk of harm if they confront any suspicious activities.

So what can you do?  

Fortunately, there are many solutions, from high-tech gadgetry to watchful neighbors. But first you have to educate yourself and, most of all, don’t ever think it can’t happen to you, says Debi Metcalfe, who lives in North Carolina.

Her journey began in 1997 when she and her husband discovered that someone had stolen Idaho, her husband’s mare, from their pasture. The perpetrator had cut the fence along a dirt road and simply led the horse away.  

The shock over the discovery was nearly equaled by the shock that there was nowhere to turn, no structured resources for victims of horse theft.

Metcalfe got on the Internet and emailed flyers to everyone she could think of, from law enforcement agencies to auction houses. Nearly a year later, her efforts were rewarded when Idaho was found and brought home.

The experience changed Metcalfe’s life. She is the founder and president of the 501(c)(3) Stolen Horse International Inc. and one of the pre-eminent spokespeople on horse and barn security. Metcalfe now travels the country speaking about horse security issues. She also launched, a website and volunteer network of people ready to view alerts and help victims recover property and animals. The organization also offers identification and security products and information.

With all the reports that have flooded in over the years, Metcalfe has seen common weak links in the way horse people handle their security.

“No. 1 is that people don’t educate themselves,” she says. “They don’t know about basic security needs. They have the false sense that it’s not going to happen to them.”

But it does happen. It doesn’t make  a difference if your barn is tucked out of sight off the road or in a subdivision  with lots of neighbors. It can happen at a busy boarding stable or at an event in a large city.  

It happened to Dawn Rullman in Wisconsin. Between 1 and 2 p.m. on Dec. 19, 2014, thieves stole her 2003 Exiss Event two-horse slant-load trailer that contained a Crates Western saddle, a Borelli English saddle, a Bighorn synthetic saddle, a Crates mahogany bridle, Miniature Horse harnesses, show clothes, a silver show halter, and other items from her in-laws’ small farm where she keeps her horses.

Horse trailer

“My mother-in-law was in the shower, and the house door was unlocked,” says Rullman. “Someone opened the door and yelled ‘Hello. Is anyone home?’ She jumped out of the shower, and when she went to the window, she saw an older man. She quickly got dressed but, by the time she got back out there, the man was gone. We didn’t notice the trailer missing until my daughter went out to feed the horses.

“Later that evening when my husband told his friend about our trailer being stolen, the friend said he saw someone pulling it and thought we had loaned it out,” she says.  

They figure the man broke the lock on the trailer tongue. And because life at the farm had always seemed safe to the Rullmans, they had never installed security cameras on the property.  

Rullman turned to NetPosse, which created an alert, as well as Facebook and reported it to the police and insurance company. She had plenty of photos of the items, descriptions, an identification number for one saddle, receipts for the newer items, and the trailer’s vehicle identification number.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much the police or insurance company could do (because the trailer was not parked on her own property at the time, she could not get reimbursed under her insurance policy) and, despite plenty of attention via social media, they never recovered their possessions.

The Rullmans no longer keep tack at the farm, and she says she plans to move their horses to a busier barn soon.

The unexpected also happened to Anna Terry of Cummings, Iowa, and several others at an Iowa Quarter Horse Association circuit show in June 2015 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, in Des Moines. There, a thief stole thousands of dollars’ worth of goods from the stall/exhibit area.

“Wooden chairs, custom-made tables and curtains, a big stainless steel rolling cooler, a toolbox, medications, clippers … they took so much stuff,” reports Terry, who runs a Quarter Horse training business with boyfriend and trainer Jamie Zuidema, of Zuidema Show Horses.

Terry says the theft has changed their behavior at horse shows. “We lock up everything now,” she says. None of the stolen items have been recovered.

“There is no way to totally protect yourself,” admits Metcalfe. “If someone really wants to take something, they will find ways to do it. But don’t let your complacency help them.”

Are you prepared? Check out these ideas for punching up your security.

At Your Farm or Boarding Stable

  • Eliminate vegetation around buildings that can hide intruders. Have clear sight zones along fences.  
  • Use glare lighting directed away from buildings. A bright light shining into an intruder’s face might make it difficult for him or her to see who or what is in their targeted area.
  • Post signs that photos are being taken of visitors and their license plates and that the information goes into a database. Post signs alerting visitors that the horses on the premises are microchipped for permanent identification.
  • Note details of anyone coming on the property, from feed delivery people to farriers, notes Larry Gray, executive director of law enforcement for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
  • Set up or become part of a neighborhood watch-type program. Even if neighbors are simply aware that people are watching out for each other, they might be more likely to notice if someone looks suspicious.
  • Set up a watch program with your fellow boarders. Let them know if anyone is allowed to use your horse or borrow your tack or trailer. Agree to question strangers in the tack room or the barn. Write down license plate numbers of unfamiliar vehicles.
  • If buying a horse, ask around about the seller’s credibility, says Gray. People have purchased horses in his region only to have them stolen a week later by the seller who turns around and sells them again elsewhere.
  • Consider installing alarms, which are a great way to alert you to visitors or intruders. Depending on the model, they might even notify you when you are away from the barn. Photoelectric beams across doorways or aisleways can trigger an alarm when the beam is broken. Motion sensor alarms can alert you when people come and go.

    Driveway alarms include, for example, relatively inexpensive, easy-to-install electromagnetic sensor wands. Buried next to your driveway, these detect mass metal moving within a 3- to 12-foot radius. Any vehicle passing the sensor trips the outdoor transmitter to communicate wirelessly to a small base you can station up to 400 feet away. Its only drawback is that if no one is home to hear the signal, you won’t know if someone has driven onto your property.

    Fence monitors can alert you to failures with your fencing, giving you the chance to stop horses from escaping or being stolen from pastures. Eagle Eye Monitoring Systems, for example, has a Mobile Fence Link that will send a text message to your cell phone if it detects a break or short in the fence or power loss from the energizer. Ryan Escure, the electronic engineer and rancher behind the products, says the monitor can work with three-strand electric wire as well as ribbon wire fencing.

    Even peacocks, donkeys, and farm dogs can alert you to intruders. The trick is to listen to the tone of the calls and not ignore what you hear, says Metcalfe.

  • Cameras or video surveillance systems can help you identify intruders and what they are doing, which is crucial to capture and prosecution.  Options include wildlife trail cameras which, depending on brand and model, can offer infrared at ranges of 60 feet or so, and video, as well as still images saved to an SD card with time and date stamps.Video surveillance systems come in many configurations. Check to see if the one you choose allows you to read license plates during the day and identify facial features at night.Bill Thiel, owner of Saddlebrook BarnCams in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, offers wired and wireless BarnCams made specifically for horse farms and designed to work with metal pole buildings. Videos can be watched on a monitor and saved to a hard drive. If you have wireless you can view the videos on a smartphone, save them to a hard drive, or stream them to a website with password protection.When considering a video camera, Thiel suggests checking image quality and camera capacity before it has to start recording over old video. A camera with motion detection can be set to function 24 hours a day but only record when someone or something moves. That feature saves looking through hours of darkness if you want to review something that happened in a few minutes at night. Whatever camera you choose, says Thiel, one of the most effective things you can do is to let potential intruders know you are watching. Don’t hide cameras. Make them obvious. If you are on a limited budget, just a camera body might deter people.

For Horses, Equipment, and Trailers

  • At events, Gray says he commonly sees people tie their horses to trailers between rounds so they can go watch the event. He is aware of several horses stolen in these situations and advises keeping your horses in view.
  • Consider freeze-branding your horse. The brands can be quite visible on the shoulder, hip, or thigh. In Texas, notes Gray, the brands are recorded at county clerks’ offices and put into a database. Also, take photos.
  • When locking up equipment, use padlocks with tamper-resistant, case-hardened steel shanks. Consider locking your equipment to something that can’t be moved or securing it to the floor. Locks are only as good as the hasps (hinged fasteners) to which they are attached. Hasps that fold over themselves when locked prevent access to the screws.
  • Gates can be a deterrent, but check for the weakest link. If intruders can lift them off their hinges or cut through the chain that holds them shut, they won’t do much good.
  • Have photos and videos and detailed descriptions of your horses that even a nonhorse person would understand.  
  • Microchip your horse, register the chip, and keep the information up to date.  
  • Hide identification information in your trailer and on your tack in several places in case the items are taken apart. Keep a record, listing each item and where the identification is hidden, along with a digital and printed photo of the ID mark. Keep the record in a secure spot such as a safe deposit box. Keep a copy of the record at home so you can report thefts online immediately.
  • Start watching for your stolen horse or tack on Craigslist or eBay.  
  • Make sure you have the insurance coverage you need. Confirm in writing with your insurance agent that your tack, trailer, or horse is covered if it is kept on someone else’s property or if you are at a horse show. If you have everything on your home property, confirm that you are covered for theft as well as liability in case an intruder lets your horses loose.

Boarding and Training Thefts

Metcalfe warns about a newer avenue for theft—unscrupulous boarding stables and trainers. If your horse was not on your own property but removed by the stable owner where it was boarded, law enforcement usually doesn’t get involved.

Instead, it is considered a civil situation to be dealt with through the judicial system. The problem with that is, if the horse is sold to a slaughterhouse, he could be dead long before any action could be taken.

To deal with this gray area of civil thefts, says Metcalfe, keep everything documented as far as your payments, the horse’s identification—including registration papers, microchip information, and brands—and your boarding and/or training contract. She suggests you make sure your contract says you have the right to visit your horse without prior notice and can remove it without prior notice.

“People trust people too much,” says Metcalfe. “I wouldn’t let my own momma have my horse without a contract.”

Rullman sums it up: “It can happen anywhere to anyone,” she says. “Thieves don’t care who you are. It was the most violating feeling, and my heart broke for my daughter, who discovered our trailer and all our equine-related belongings missing. Make sure you protect yourself as well as your animals and belongings. Someone who is that brave to go in broad daylight and help themselves to someone else’s things is kind of scary.”

So while they lost nearly $25,000 in prized horse equipment, they count themselves lucky that her mother-in-law didn’t end up coming face to face with the intruder. You can’t replace a life.