If you run a boarding stable or a breeding operation, chances are there are people and vehicles going in and out of your place all the time. Owners, trainers, farriers, veterinarians, chiropractors, feed salesmen, the guy who delivers the shavings, people shopping for horses or looking for a place to keep their own, someone dropping off flyers for a local horse show—the list is endless. With all these comings and goings, an open-door policy seems the easiest thing to do. That is, until you open the tack room door one morning and discover 20 saddles are missing.
Thefts like this happen all too often, and they’re not the worst of it. Horses can be stolen right from under our noses—taken from stalls or paddocks in the dead of night, enticed into a trailer and driven away within a matter of minutes. Remember the famous case of Fanfreluche? She was the thoroughbred broodmare in foal to Secretariat who disappeared from a Kentucky paddock in 1977. She was found some five and a half months later in a farmer’s field, by chance. (None the worse for her misadventure, fortunately, Fanfreluche foaled normally the following spring and the foal was named Sain et Sauf—French for “safe and sound.”)
Because of her value, the case of Fanfreluche attracted international attention, but less famous horses are stolen daily without attracting much press or interest from police. They may end up being shuttled through auctions—and from there, one shudders to think of their fate.
Not convinced that the danger is real? Here’s a particularly horrifying incident to ponder. On the night of December 14, 1998, someone walked into the boarding stable at Greenwinds Farm just north of Toronto, Ontario, and shot the first two horses on either side of the aisle dead with a rifle. At first, the attack seemed the random act of a madman, but three weeks later, two more horses were shot, this time from the outside through stall windows. One died instantly; the other was rushed to surgery and survived. All four were boarders’ horses, with doting amateur owners. None belonged to the farm manager, noted jumper trainer Robert Krcmar. These unthinkable crimes shocked the Toronto-area horse community and showed just how vulnerable our horses are. The case remains unsolved despite continent-wide publicity and a substantial reward for information leading to an arrest.
Detective Gary McBrien, with the York Regional Police, was the lead investigator in this incident. “There was no rhyme or reason for these four horses being singled out,” he notes. “And there was no discernible pattern among the owners. The horses were the pawns in this scenario, which seems to have been directed at the farm manager. (Krcmar’s) career and his livelihood pretty much went down the drain; no-one wanted to board their horses with him after that, and I believe the farm is still standing empty, with a For Sale sign on it.
“I’ve been a policeman for 29 years in the York Region and I’ve never seen another incident like this. We got hundreds of calls from concerned horse owners all over North America, but we’ve never been able to put together enough evidence to make an arrest.”
Lock it Up
Though one fervently hopes that a crime this shocking never happens again, it did serve to open more than a few eyes. As friendly as we’d like our community to be, a complete lack of security on the farm is probably too optimistic an approach. So what can you do to protect yourself, your clients and your business from theft and invasion—without effectively paralyzing your operation?
Almost every horseman would agree that it’s dangerous to lock horses in their stalls as it’s essential that those doors swing open easily in the event of a barn fire. And with tack and equipment in regular use every day, fumbling with locks and alarm systems seems like a lot of extra trouble. But the truth of the matter is that many horse operations have virtually no security in place and are wide open for thieves and vandals.
McBrien, who toured several Toronto-area horse farms in the process of his investigation, agrees that instituting the usual security measures for public buildings is difficult in a barn. “In a home or business, you can use deadbolts, security cameras and alarms,” he says. “But in a barn, you’ve got horses moving around all the time, not to mention dogs, cats and the occasional rodent—so motion-sensor alarms probably aren’t practical. Video cameras only work when the lights are on and most farm managers do want to turn the lights off at some point to give the horses some rest. And it’s dangerous to bolt the horses into their stalls.”
Still, he says, “Anything you do (to increase security) will help to improve the situation.” Most thieves want to be able to get in and out in a hurry, so any impediment to that is likely to be pretty effective at discouraging them. Consider a security gate at your entrance, for example, with a code only you and your clients know. Or at the very least, make the entrance to your barn well lit. Motion-sensor lights or high-wattage street lights at the doors can make it difficult to slip quickly in and out under cover of darkness.
“The best protection is to have someone on-site all the time,” McBrien says. He suggests that if your operation merits the expense—if you’re housing top-dollar racehorses or performance horses, for example—investigate private security companies who can patrol your premises through the night and any other time you can’t be on the property.
If that’s not within your barn budget, low-tech noisemakers can go a long way toward protecting your property, too. A fiercely barking dog has discouraged many a burglar, and so have a couple of geese in the barnyard. (Those who’ve tangled with bad-tempered waterfowl often agree they’re far nastier than many canines—but they may make life difficult for you and your clients, too!) These solutions work best, of course, if you reside on the property; otherwise you’re unlikely to hear the alarm.
Inside the barn, you can help to protect your tack by using a lock on your tack room door or by providing your clients with individual lockers and padlocks. “We lock our tack room whenever we’re not in it, even if we’re at home,” says Hollyn Mangione, manager of Homestretch Farm in Earlysville, Va. “We also carry insurance on the tack that is for replacement value, not worth. It’s not a whole lot more expensive and it’s worth the peace of mind. Our area has experienced a rash of break-ins lately, so I’ve moved some of the more valuable items into the house. Basically, the best advice I can give is to lock up valuable items. I have my saddle in a locking saddle rack that is attached to the wall and my tack trunk has a lock on it.”
Encourage your clients to permanently mark their tack so it’s easy to trace in case of theft. Don’t rely on those little brass name tags; they can be pried off in a few seconds. Instead, have your saddler stamp or engrave your driver’s license number or social security number in an inconspicuous place and take photos of anything of value so that you’ll be able to provide a detailed description of missing items to police and to your insurance company.
The same goes for your horses. Each animal should be documented in your files with a complete description and an up-to-date series of photos that clearly show any distinguishing marks. Remember that most police officers won’t be able to extrapolate from your yearling photos to identify a seven-year-old gelding.
You may also want to consider branding, freeze-marking or injecting a subdermal microchip in your horses to aid in identification. (Lip tattoos, such as those used by thoroughbred and standardbred racehorses, often become difficult to read after a few years and are not considered good identifiers by most police officers.) Freeze-marking is particularly popular in Great Britain and Europe, where horse theft is arguably a much more common problem than in North America; many owners place the freeze-mark on the horse’s saddle area, where it will be invisible when the horse is ridden and shown. Unobtrusive microchips are increasing in popularity, too, but do require a special reading device (a several-hundred-dollar item) to be detected.
Horses are most accessible to thieves when they’re turned out in large paddocks far away from the main buildings on the farm. Leaving them halterless can make them harder for thieves to catch, but can cause problems for you, as well, so you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of that strategy. At the least, you should check on every animal on a daily basis and you should also padlock any infrequently-used gates with direct access to a road.
Julia Lord, of Blue Moon Farm in North Liberty, Ind., recently had a scare when vandals smashed the windows of a car sitting in the driveway right below her bedroom window. Though her barn and her horses weren’t harmed, the incident “has me a little spooked,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in 24-hour-a-day turnout for the health of my horses, but it seems to me that the kind of person who smashes windows would probably find it quite amusing to shoot horses with paintballs or cut the fence and watch them go running off down the road. So now my horses will be locked in the barn at night, as much as I hate it.”
Beware of strangers who show up at your farm unannounced. They may be “casing” the property only to return later to clean out your tack room. “Be very cautious about people who call up as potential boarders and ask to see your facility,” says Mangione. “Some of the break-ins in my area have occurred after someone came to visit but then never called to follow up or reserve a stall. We don’t advertise for boarders, and only take people we know and trust.
“If your barn has shows and clinics, you are much more at risk,” she adds. “The thief has ample time and excuse to wander around and look at everything. On those days it would be wise to lock all tack rooms and boarder-only areas so that prying eyes can’t see what you have. If the place looks like it would be hard to get into, thieves will most likely skip it and go someplace easier.”
Inconvenient? Sure. But in an age of burgeoning crime and increasing anxiety, taking a few extra minutes to fumble with a lock may be a small price to pay for increased peace of mind.