Gangs of con men are advertising in equestrian magazines for ponies of any age or condition which would make good "companions". But rather than finding a home for them they sell them on to meat traders for profits of up to pounds 400 a carcass.
The flourishing trade is being investigated by police forces across the country with the help of the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), the RSPCA and Horsewatch. In Hampshire, the police have sent a file to the Criminal Prosecution Service after complaints from more than 80 people.
In Thirsk, Yorkshire, police are investigating reports that mares have ended up in abattoirs after being handed over by unsuspecting owners. Most ponies become pet food, but some are sold to dealers for as much as pounds 700 per animal, who then sell them on as eventing horses.
The ILPH has set up a database of victims and is urging horse owners to study advertisements closely and to draw up a proper contract before parting with their animals.
Initially, the con men reassure owners they will be able to visit the animal and that it will be looked after at premises which they can inspect. In reality, the pony will stay at its new home for as little as a week before it is sold at market. By the time the owner discovers the pet has vanished it is too late to intervene.
Most owners do not want payment, happy their pony will be placed with a "good family". But in some cases, the con men hand over a small payment, which can be as little as pounds 1. Police believe this is a tactic to avoid prosecution, because they can claim the pony was legally sold to them.
Michael Goodrick and his wife Valerie from Norfolk are typical victims. They fear they may never see their pony, Bess, again. The couple responded to an advert for mares to act as "companions for younger ponies". Mrs Goodrick no longer rode Bess, a 19-year-old Irish draft cross, and felt it would be an ideal way for the pony to spend her retirement.
They were told they would be able to visit Bess and would be shown where she would be kept, but were subsequently unable to contact the woman who had taken the horse. Attempts by the ILPH to trace the pony have been unsuccessful. "Bess was freeze-branded, which makes me fear she has been bumped off," said Mr Goodrick. "We are devastated because she has been part of the family for so long. My wife has had her since she was a young girl and my son even learned to walk by holding on to her tail.
"The woman turned up in a trailer to take Bess away and we followed it to a farm. The surroundings seemed pleasant and there were other ponies there which seemed well looked after.
"I'm naturally suspicious, but the woman seemed so genuine and respectable. We would never have parted with Bess if we did not think she was going to a good home."
Tony Buckley, a Yorkshire-based ILPH field officer investigating cases of vanishing ponies, said: "Sometimes people have offered to buy back their pets but their request is refused or they are asked to pay an exorbitant sum. There is an element of gullibility on the part of the owners but these tricksters are very convincing."
Lucy Wykeham, a spokesman for the ILPH, said the con men are deliberately preying on people who are vulnerable. "Often people find they cannot look after their pets or their children grow up and they want their pony properly cared for," she added. "This really is the most base deception and action must be taken to stop this cruel business."Reuse content