Friday, December 13, 2002

Owners circle the wagons to protect their equine friends

"You just can't put a price tag on these horses."

By Karen Vance
Enquirer contributor

[photo] Kelly Wright feeds three of her horses at her Clermont County home.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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Clermont County horse owner Kelly Wright has padlocked her corral gates and keeps her four horses in the barn at night.

Danielle Combs, who lives in Warren County, is considering a "freeze brand" for her two horses.

Across the Tristate, horse lovers and those who cater to them are looking for better ways to protect their prized pets from thieves.

Twice in the past two weeks, Tristate horse owners have been victimized by rustlers who crept in during the night, led away horses - four in all - and disappeared. Police in Warren and Clermont counties have few leads and have made no arrests in either theft. The crime is rare in the Tristate.

"Before now, you never really worried about it," Mrs. Wright said. "You never thought about someone pulling up to your driveway and loading a 1,600-pound animal into a trailer and driving away."

She's finding it more difficult to let the horses out to exercise but keep them close to the house and away from danger.

"For most of us, you just can't put a price tag on these horses," Mrs. Wright said. "It's definitely put everyone's radar up."

Adding locks offers a measure of security, but locking a barn is taboo among horse owners because of their other great fear: fire.

Ms. Combs, who lives near the Wayne Township family whose two geldings disappeared last week, said she doesn't understand why horses are being taken because prices are lower now than usual.

"You can buy a horse for $200 to $300 now, so you know these people aren't taking these horses just to have one," she said.

Her horses, she said, are "a part of my family ... I can't imagine if one of them was stolen."

Meanwhile, security countermeasures have become the hot topic of conversation at feed stores and veterinarians' offices throughout the area.

[photo] Dr. Bill Lukens injects a microchip into a horse at YMCA Camp Kern in Turtlecreek Township.
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[photo] A scanner reads the indentification number for the horse.
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Dr. Bill Lukens, a veterinarian at the Lebanon Equine Clinic, said demand for microchip identifiers has soared since the reported thefts. The clinic is expecting a shipment of 200 more chips and has scheduled more than 90 appointments with horse owners to implant them.

The chips, about the size of a pencil's lead point, are injected under a horse's mane. The $40 procedure is guaranteed for 25 years, and when scanned, produces a combination of letters and numbers that identify the owner.

"It's relatively new, and it's been going slowly, but with the stolen horses recently, we've had a lot more people asking about this," he said. "And we'll be able to positively identify these horses if they're ever stolen."

But that assumes that a stolen horse is recovered. The microchips, while useful in identifying a stolen horse, are not a deterrent to thieves. And despite the best efforts of groups like Stolen Horse International (SHI), which tries to track down missing steeds via the Internet and at auctions, less than a third of stolen horses are recovered.

Complacency hurts

Debi Metcalfe, who founded SHI, said rustlers have the upper hand.

"Thieves are not hanged anymore. The laws are not strict enough. It's an open market, and the horse thieves have all the advantages," she said.

SHI estimates that 6.1 million people nationwide are horse owners, and 40,000 to 55,000 horses are taken each year. Mrs. Metcalfe said thieves take advantage of horse owners' complacency and lack of awareness.

"The general misconception is that a horse is so big, who would take it?" she said. "But most horses are used to loading and being led by people and don't put up a fight. It's easier than you think.

"One person leads the horse through the pasture to the road, calls the driver on a cell phone and loads the horse into a trailer," she said. "The horse is gone in a few minutes."

No government agency tracks horse thefts, though some states have more resources in place to combat rustlers and find stolen steeds.

Tim Waechter is offering a reward for information leading to the return of Rainbow and Princess. If you have any information, call Mr. Waechter at 583-9862, 677-8952 or 284-7519.

Anyone with information about the thefts from the Buflod farm in Wayne Township can contact the Warren County Sheriff's Office at (513) 695-1289.

For information about Stolen Horse International or to view pictures of other stolen horses, visit

In Kentucky, state police don't keep records of horse thefts. Police could recall only a handful of cases in recent years.

Max Thomas, supervisor of the Tennessee State Department of Agriculture's crime unit, has been investigating horse thefts for 18 years. He said his unit works horse thefts "just like any other crime. We get to know the markets and have informants within the agricultural world. The important thing is to know how (horse thieves) operate."

From experience, he's learned that 70 percent of horse thieves have been on the farm they steal from before the theft, and that the horses are usually sold within 24 to 36 hours of the theft at a location within 150 miles of the farm.

He said high-tech devices like microchips are useful, but branding is the best deterrent to thieves.

"Most people won't steal a horse with a big brand on its hip, and if they do, they're probably going to get caught," he said.

Horses that wind up in slaughterhouses in Texas or Canada can sometimes be saved, Dr. Lukens said, if a scanner is used there. Given a stolen horse's description, workers can scan new arrivals, looking for a microchip that proves ownership, he said.

56,000 slaughtered in 2001

Horse slaughter is an active business in the United States despite most states' ban on the human consumption of horsemeat. More than 56,000 horses were slaughtered in 2001.

Two slaughterhouses operate in Texas, and most of the meat is exported to Europe at a delicacy price of up to $20 a pound, according to SHI. Belgium and Luxembourg are the biggest consumers, with more than $19 million worth of horsemeat imported in 2001. Europe's troubles with mad cow disease and hoof and mouth disease have only increased that demand, and the prices that slaughter horses fetch at auction.

Most horse byproducts used in the United States, for products like glue and pet foods, are produced at rendering plants which, unlike meat plants, accept dead horses but don't pay as much for them.

Meat isn't always the motive for theft. Mrs. Metcalfe said thieves sometimes target a certain type of horse, like a gentle riding horse for a child, especially around the holiday season.

"If a child can ride that horse, the price can almost double," she said.

Mourning a lost horse

Meanwhile, the loss of two horses has just begun to hit Heidi Buflod of Warren County, whose geldings were stolen a week ago. "At first it was just a numbness. Now the grief is really starting to set in, and it looks almost hopeless," she said. "It's hard to think of my 7-year-old not having his horse at Christmas time."

But she felt the support of the horse community last weekend when her family passed out flyers about Midnight and Blackjack at the Lebanon Carriage Horse Parade. Many in the crowd hugged her children and expressed a feeling of solidarity.

Diane Waechter, the owner of the two stolen Clermont County horses, has felt that same support, receiving cards, phone calls and e-mails from horse owners all over the country. She remains active in the search for her beloved mares, calling radio shows, her congressmen and the Oprah Winfrey show.

"I would go to the president if I could," she said. "I'm just staying up all the time and watching the remaining horses. You go down to the barn, and (Rainbow and Princess) aren't there, and I sit there and think about them."

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