It's a sad fact that most of us have at some time in our lives been the victims of theft. Having your property stolen is extremely upsetting, but the theft of a beloved horse is truly devastating. So, what steps can you take to deter thieves and keep your horse safe?
Freeze marking is an increasingly popular option. The procedure involves a cold branding iron being applied to the horse's skin for about 10 seconds. The hair growth follicles in the skin beneath the brand are destroyed causing the hair to grow back white. In the case of white or lighter coloured horses, the brand is applied for slightly longer so that the hair does not grow back at all and a dark mark is left on the skin. Each horse is allocated a four digit brand of letters and numbers. This information together with the owner's details is entered onto a database. The brand is generally placed on the horse's back so that it is obscured by the saddle when the horse is being ridden.
A freeze mark is instantly visible unless the horse is saddled or rugged up and most freeze marking companies provide owners with several badges which can be sewn onto rugs indicating that the wearer is freeze marked. Once the freeze mark has been applied, it is not removable.
Microchipping is actually a legal requirement for all horses foaled after July 1, 2009 and provides a guarantee of identity. The procedure for implantation is not entirely pain-free but is very quick and leaves no scarring or externally visible mark. The chip is placed in the horse's neck. Once implanted, the microchip can be 'read' using a special scanner. The horse and owners' details are logged onto a database. There is no visible deterrent although signage is available which can be displayed on field gates or around stable yards advising visitors that all horses on that particular yard are microchipped.
Hoof branding is similar to freeze marking in that it provides a visible form of identification, unless of course the horse is standing in a muddy field! It is necessary to have the brands reapplied fairly frequently as they do grow out as the horse's feet grow down.
Passports: From 1 July 2009 every horse in the UK was legally required to be microchipped and passported. Only the horse's owner is allowed to apply for a passport and any changes in ownership must be recorded on the document and made via the passport issuing office. Horses may not be transported without a passport and abattoirs must not accept a horse for slaughter unless it is presented with its passport. Passports must be returned to the issuing office within 30 days of a horse's death. Never buy a horse if it does not have a passport, microchip or freeze mark – it may be stolen.
Make sure you keep all your ownership documents in a safe place. It's a good idea to have photographs of your horse too, taken from both sides, front and rear to help clearly identify him.
Never leave a head collar on your horse or lead ropes and head collars hanging on the field gate or outside stables. Try to make life as difficult as possible for would-be thieves. Make your field as thief-proof as possible by ensuring that fencing is robust, secure and not easy to cut through. A heavy duty padlock and chain fixed to the gate at night is also a good idea and if possible make sure your horses' turn out area is within clear view of either your house or your neighbours, especially if the horses are out at night.
Yard gates should be kept closed at all times for safety reasons but it is a good idea to lock them securely at night. A horse thief could obviously climb over a locked gate but they will still need to be able to open it quickly to lead the horses out and a set of bolt cutters will set a padlock and chain rattling loud enough to alert a dog and arouse suspicion. I would advise against padlocking barn or stable doors. In the event of a fire, you will need instant access in order to release the horses quickly. Thieves like to be 'in and out' as fast as possible. The longer it takes them to gain access to your horses, the more likely it is that they will be seen and caught. The more barriers you place in their way, the less likely they are to risk it.
CCTV and an alarm system could be installed relatively inexpensively with warning signs displayed prominently around the yard and on the approaches to it. Motion-activated sensor lights all around the yard are a really good idea and again, not expensive to install.
Be vigilant. If you notice a strange car or see anyone you don't know hanging around the yard or near your fields, make a note of registration numbers and the date and time you first observed the suspicious activity. It may be nothing at all, but such information could be invaluable to the police if a crime is subsequently committed.
If possible, vary your routine from time to time and ask a friend to make an occasional random visit. Theft of livestock is rarely opportunistic and is usually planned. If thieves don't know exactly what times of day you visit your field or stables they will be less confident about staging a raid.
If you are unlucky enough to have a horse stolen, you must alert the police as soon as the theft is discovered. Give them as much information as you can about your horse including photographs and a detailed description.
Your horse should be freeze marked and microchipped; notify the relevant companies immediately. Get the social network on the case too. Facebook, Twitter etc are invaluable for spreading the word as are the numerous horsey forums out there on the net. Print off posters and distribute them around local tack shops, livestock markets and abattoirs.
Prevention is always better than cure, especially where your horse is concerned.