Protecting Your Horse From Theft
How common is horse theft?
Stealing horses is not uncommon. It ranges from people taking other people's horses for a "joy ride" to incidents of horses being stolen and butchered for meat.
The value of the horse does not necessarily affect the risk of theft. In fact, highly recognizable horses are somewhat less likely to be stolen, although there have been incidents of horses being held for ransom (the Shergar incident remaining the most high profile) or valuable show horses vanishing the night before an event only to show up when the show is over. (Some people will go to any length to win - another common act of pettiness is cutting off a rival horse's tail right before a show and there was a famous incident of a top barrel racer being stolen and literally tortured by disgruntled rivals. Fortunately, most people are honest).
How do you reduce the risk that your horse will be stolen and increase the chance of it being recovered?
Padlocks and Chains
A horse should never be padlocked into a stall. However, pasture and paddock gates can and should be chained and padlocked closed. Be sure to apply a chain and paddock to both ends of the gate - many gates can easily be lifted off their hinges. This will not stop a determined thief, but may make him go elsewhere. It will also prevent trespassers from wandering into your pasture and leaving the gate open, and significantly deter joy riders (Yes, there have been many incidents of idiots going into somebody's pasture and trying to ride their horses - sometimes then trying to sue the owners when they fall off).
If a footpath or right of way leads through your pasture then you are not allowed to block it. The best course of action is to lock any gates and provide a suitable stile.
Make and keep a full record of the exact appearance of your horse. It's best to take photos from all angles...both sides, front and rear. Store these in a safe place with your horse's registration papers if it has any. Also, take close up pictures of your horse's chestnuts, which are as unique as our own fingerprints.
Note the position of any whorls on your horse - these are distinctive and individual and particularly useful if you have a grey or 'plain brown' horse.
If your horse has a brand, freeze mark or lip tattoo, be sure to keep a record of the number. Lip tattoos are usually found only on Thoroughbreds who have raced and can fade significantly in older horses, but they are an extra means of identification.
Take pictures in both winter and summer. Some horses change color completely when they shed out. At least one picture of your horse should have you or a family member in it - this acts as proof that you do or did own the horse.
Most horse thieves would rather not have somebody track them down with the animal. Adding an extra identification mark to your horse can be a deterrent to many thieves.
There are several methods that can be used. One of the most popular is freeze marking or cold branding. In England there is a national registry of freeze marks and the mark is usually applied under the saddle, where it will not be visible when the horse is being ridden. In America, things are less organized, and you can use anything for a freeze mark. A contraction of the horse's name is one of the popular ones. You can also create a brand for yourself, or use a number. The mark can be applied to the saddle area, hindquarters or neck (usually where it would be under the mane). Before applying a freeze mark, make sure your chosen breed association or discipline will not mark horses down for being freeze marked.
Hot branding is still traditional in many parts of the United States and is also used by Warmblood breed associations to identify approved animals. Most people feel that freeze marking is more humane, but there are arguments both ways. In some National Parks in both the US and Canada it is required to brand any horses ridden into the park, although most consider freeze marks acceptable.
Microchips are another method. The downside is that unlike a brand, the microchip is not immediately visible. Also, they can shift under the horse's skin. Thoroughbreds are now chipped as well as receiving lip tattoos...if you buy a racehorse, it is worth having somebody check to see if it is already chipped.
Lip tattoos are almost exclusively seen on Thoroughbreds that have raced, but a few people have started to use this method for permanent identification on other horses.
The final, and least commonly used method is hoof branding. With this, a small iron is used to stamp a unique number onto each of the horse's front hooves. This is cheap and you can learn to do it yourself. However, the brand has to be redone about every three months as the hoof grows out.
Always place clear signage indicating that horses are chipped or branded, and bear in mind this will not deter those who steal horses for meat.
It's worth considering some kind of alarm system on your barn, to protect both your horses and your tack.
Bear in mind that an audible alarm may scare any horses that are inside the barn. It is worth looking into desensitizing your horses to the sound of the alarm. A silent alarm, on the other hand, may not be an adequate deterrent.
If you have a property where there is nobody spending the night, then make sure to get an alarm that automatically calls the police, but be sure to set it so that the barn cat does not keep setting it off.
The best burglar deterrent, according to former professional burglars, is a dog. It may or may not be practical to acquire a barn dog that can live on the property full time, but it's worth considering. Terrier breeds will also double as good vermin protection - the barn cat probably won't want to deal with a rat almost as large as it is.
Also worth considering are the proven stock protection breeds. Great Pyrenees are awesome dogs, although be sure to check pedigrees carefully, as some lines of this breed have temperament faults. Other stock protection breeds include the Anatolian Shepherd Dog and the Komondor.
Avoid herding or hunting breeds. Herding breeds are particularly bad - they will try to herd the horses. Possibly even while you're trying to ride.
If you are not at the barn a lot and don't want to leave a dog alone, keep another noisy animal. Guinea fowl are great - they make a tremendous amount of noise. You could also acquire another stock guardian species that can be turned out with your horse - the best would be a llama, alpaca, or a standard or miniature donkey.
At Horse Shows
Most people are honest. High profile incidents of horses being stolen or injured by rival competitors, however, have led to concerns about the safety of horses at shows.
It is not safe to padlock a stall, even in temporary stabling. Many people resort to sleeping in front of their horse's stall at night or taking a dog with them to take on that duty.
Avoid signs that show your horse's breeding, which can lead thieves to know which horses to take. As tempting as it might be, don't pin your ribbons to the outside of the stall. Wait until you get home to show them off. Do, however, attach a sign saying your horse and tack have permanent identification. (To permanently id a saddle, engrave a number such as your drivers' license number into the saddle bars or stamp it to the fenders).