Looking the length of an empty paddock to the stable, it was with dread that one horse owner realised the significance of the door left expertly opened, hooked flush to the wall. It meant those who had opened it knew enough about handling horses not to take them through an unfastened door which might swing back in the wind to startle or wound them. Hoof marks leading to trailer tracks indicated that professional horse thieves don't only roam the Wild West, rustlers also target Kent.
"I was so shocked friends say I was like a zombie for weeks," said Karen, recalling the time when she discovered that her piebald mare and pony had been stolen. When interviewed, she witheld her surname and even asked that her Christian name be changed since she fears repercussions from the thieves.
Her horses were recovered, thanks to a national network of horse owners who swung into action, disseminating information on Karen's animals with military precision. Representatives of Horsewatch pressed hard on the heels of the thieves, reporting back sightings of the animals as they changed hands through dealers from London to Wales and then as far afield as Cornwall. Six weeks later Karen's horse and pony were back home, safely bolted behind the stable door while recuperating from an ordeal that left them under-nourished and maltreated.
Around 150 horses are stolen annually, meanwhile theft of saddles, bridles and other tack is on the increase - and a multi-million pound trade has developed. The theft of horse boxes and trailers has reached such proportions that some police forces have had identification numbers painted on their roofs to enable them to be detected from police helicopters.
In the latest move to thwart the thieves, Equus, the Equine Crime Unit Computer Information System, has been set up at New Scotland Yard in London and will be officially launched in September. The database of the Equine Crime Prevention Unit, this provides a significant resource for Horsewatch schemes around the country by recording pictures and details of horses and tack. In Karen's case, for example, equine crime specialist PC Hugh Davies circulated pictures of her animals among horse dealers in London and from this came the first leads to their whereabouts.
PC Davies explains, "Contrary to popular belief, the majority of horse owners are not wealthy people. They are giving up huge amounts of time and money to keep horses, and if their animals are stolen it can be heart breaking. We realised this was an area where the police can have a real impact working with the public."
This successful partnership has already brought about an increase - from little over 20 per cent to 52 per cent - of recovered stolen horses. It's a statistic that delights Fiona Milligan, secretary of the National Committee of Horsewatch Representatives. "Considering they steal horses at night by loading up in the field and are then the other end of the country by the next morning, we are doing well with our national network," she says. "Usually it is the all-round family cob horse or pony that is rustled," she adds, keen to displace the myth that only famous racehorses like Shergar are stolen. "Racehorses and thoroughbreds are too well documented and are too flashy, attracting attention."
Although successes have been made over animal theft, stolen tack continues to be a chronic problem. "Tack theft and resale has become a massive business. I have fax paper curled up on the floor like spaghetti from people whose tack has been stolen," Fiona Milligan comments.
Most stolen property will go through a horse market, a sort of equine car boot sale. PC Davies works in plain clothes at Southall horse market in west London, where horse dealers from around the country trade in both livestock and tack. Weather-beaten men in cloth caps and bushy sideboards lean on sticks, try not to look too many horses in the mouth and haggle over prices. The scene could be pre-war Britain except for the constant chirrup of mobile phones. "All the dealers know I am Old Bill," says PC Davies. "but some help out and we have had lots of arrests for stolen tack at Southall as well as leads to where stolen horses have been seen at sales in other areas."
Convictions are extremely rare, though. Ownership is hard to prove as no registration documents are needed when you buy a horse. DNA testing is the only sure-fire way of proving ownership of unmarked animals. The police normally find stolen horses in deserted fields and the villains deny all knowledge. Proving otherwise is virtually impossible. And, as in Karen's case, stolen animals change hands several times. Tack, which is largely unmarked, presents similar problems. "Arresting anybody is very hard and this is why we try to go more for crime prevention," says PC Davies.
In the long term, horse theft is also being halted by freeze-marking animals. The company Farmkey freeze-marked 134,000 animals last year. Other schemes include micro-chip implants and hoof branding. To combat tack theft the Metropolitan Police has designed its own marking system and PC Davies is hopeful it will be introduced around the country by other forces.
"OK we're not the Sweeney," he concedes, "but without sounding melodramatic, getting horses back to their owners, they say, is like us returning a member of their family."
A showjumper? That'll be pounds 500,000
From ponies with one foot in the knackers yard to top show-jumpers, horse prices can vary from as little as pounds 50 to pounds 500,000 and more. But it's leisure horses used by ordinary members of the public with a value of under pounds 5000 that are targets for thieves, according to the police. On average, a well-mannered pony for all-round riding and gymkhana could fetch between pounds 500 and pounds 2,000. A horse capable of carrying an adult man fox hunting for the day, would cost around pounds 3,750 to pounds 5,500.
Saddles are the most expensive items targeted in growing cases of tack theft. They can be quickly shifted. New they are worth around pounds 500, with specialist saddles costing between pounds 700 and pounds 800. Bridles go for between pounds 60-pounds 80 and sundries which include grooming kits, bandages, leg protectors, head collars and rugs can all be worth between pounds 300-pounds 500. More blatant thieves will also take horse trailers worth pounds 1,000 second-hand and horse boxes worth pounds 2,500.