The first step for protecting horses against theft is good security. Stable yards and fields can be padlocked (don’t padlock stables in case of fire), and it is important to chain and padlock the hinge side of a gate as well as the side that normally opens, so as to prevent thieves lifting it off its hinges.
Horses are safest at home or at a yard where someone is always on site. ‘Horsewatch’ and other neighbourly schemes help to protect horses against theft, and it is always a good idea to keep an eye out for any suspicious people or lorries, and to adopt the habit of recording the registration plate numbers of any unusual vehicles seen hanging around.
In the case of particularly valuable horses it may be helpful to avoid anything that identifies them individually to a stranger for instance, personalized head collars – although forms of individual identification, such as microchipping or freezebranding, that will prove a horse or pony’s ownership do deter thieves.
Microchips are probably the best form of identification as they are tamper-proof (unless surgically removed). A microchip carries an individual number and is usually implanted into the ligament at the base of the mane on the left side of the neck using a wide bore needle. The procedure is slightly uncomfortable but does not normally require sedation or any more than the usual level of restraint.
The number on the microchip is then logged with the owner’s contact details on a national database. Stolen or stray horses can then be reunited with their owners after a chip scanner has been used to identify their individual chip. It is likely that microchipping will eventually become mandatory in order to enable individual identification of horses and their passports.
Despite the potential for tampering with a brand, freeze marking is useful because it is so immediately obvious to a potential thief. It marks the horse in the same way as a hot brand, but is much less painful and therefore easier. Lip tattooing can also be used to identify horses, but again the potential is there for tattoos to be tampered with, and both freezemarking and tattooing can also be difficult to read in some horses (particularly freezemarks in grey horses) as they don’t always show up clearly.
Finally, hoof branding can be used for identification, though obviously must be repeated every few months as the hoof grows out. Other methods of identification that will enable a person to prove ownership include having an identification certificate completed by a vet, and keeping a set of photos taken from all angles.
DNA testing can also be employed, and the results held with a horse’s registration with a breed society or other equine organization.