The Long Riders' Guild


Horse Theft

Basha O'Reilly FRGS


In this age of automobiles, it is not surprising that the idea of horse theft has largely disappeared from common memory.


Many things have changed since our ancestors began to ride thousands of years ago. But stealing a horse still causes a calamity with terrible repercussions.


To learn how to guard against this crime it is necessary to understand that horses are stolen for a variety of reasons, including greed, revenge, tribalism, transportation, hunger, prestige and a desire for fame. Regardless of what motivates the culprit, the horse is a prime target in every country.

What differs is how different cultures define the activities of the horse thief. Some societies view the lawbreaker as a hero and celebrate his crime. Others despise the horse thief and execute him without mercy.

In the past, geography influenced the occurrence of this offence. Stealing horses was never a major social dilemma in Europe for a variety of reasons.

In contrast to the highly mobile nomads of Central Asia, there was very little movement among the European population. Another striking difference was that unlike Australia, Europe did not have a vast unpopulated wilderness which encouraged people to roam. Finally, Europe was never as horse rich as the Americas, where millions of horses ran wild. As a result, while horse theft was not unknown in Europe, it was an uncommon crime.

There was another great difference. Not only did the United States have great herds of horses, it was also the home of notorious horse thieves such as Doc Middleton. Starting at the tender age of 14, the notorious outlaw supposedly stole 2,000 horses between 1865 and 1879.

To combat the problem the Anti-Horse Theft Association was formed in 1853. When caught, horse thieves were promptly executed.

Other North American residents took a vastly different view on horse stealing.

Horse stealing was an accepted practice among the American Indians. The mounted tribes admired the courage of celebrated thieves and took intense pride in their skill at stealing horses. The most notorious thieves belonged to the Blackfoot and Crow tribes.

America wasn’t the only nation hosting a culture that loved to pilfer horse flesh.

This image is by Karl Bodmer, ancestor of the author.

It was commonly believed in 17th century Spain that the gypsies were responsible for the nation-wide theft of valuable horses. In an effort to curtail the threat, King Charles II de-horsed the Spanish gypsies in a single stroke. The monarch passed a law in 1695 making it illegal for gypsies to possess or even make use of a horse.

Genghis Khan didn’t try to discourage horse thieves. He exterminated them.


The Great Yasa was the collected laws, rules, and words of wisdom created by Genghis and handed down to his heirs.


The Great Yasa states, “The man in whose possession a stolen horse is found must return it to its owner and add nine horses of the same kind: if he is unable to pay this fine, his children must be taken instead of the horses, and if he have no children, he himself shall be slaughtered like a sheep.”


Gone are the days when Genghis Khan’s deadly law ruled the steppes. Modern Long Riders have learned to their dismay that stealing horses in Mongolia is now a national addiction.


Australian Long Rider Tim Cope first reported the problem in 2004, when he began his 6,000 mile ride in that country. Having procured three fine horses after much effort, Tim was hard-pressed to keep them safe. The Mongols, he learned, had no concept of guilt, shame or remorse when it came to stealing his animals.


In an email to the Guild, Tim warned, “Generally if the owner refuses to sell, then the buyer has the right to steal! Barimta is the custom whereby if a herder has the cunning to steal a horse without getting caught then he deserves the horse and will not be considered a criminal. I have experienced this in person.”


Traditionally, most 19th century horse raiders, such as the notorious Comanche, stole horses to ride.


However, a lust for profit has always stalked the shadows of the horse world. Because they can be quietly sold, stealing horses remains a lucrative business. According to one estimate, at least 40,000 American horses are stolen for profit every year.


This explains why this ancient crime has continued into the modern age. Horses are still an easy source of cash for thieves interested in short-term profit. As a result stolen horses often come to unfortunate ends.


There is another reason to steal a horse; to sell him for meat. These types of thieves are usually solo operators. They often steal on impulse, and resell quickly. This makes it very difficult to track and capture them.

Kazakhstan is a popular place for equestrian travellers. It is also a country where horses may be stolen and used as meat. Special gangs of thieves have been known to steal entire herds in the night and transport them off the steppe by truck. Travellers riding in that country need to remember that a horse can be quietly stolen and quickly sold on the meat market.

Domestic troubles can also result in your horse being stolen by family or friends. This type of civil theft is especially difficult to foresee and the results can be devastating.


French Long Rider Louis Meunier lost his horse due to such a domestic disagreement. After arriving in 2002 to live, work and ride in Afghanistan, Louis purchased a beautiful seven-year-old stallion named Tauruq. When personal obligations forced Louis to leave the country for a brief time, he entrusted his beautiful horse to a “friend” named Hashem. Upon his return to northern Afghanistan, Louis discovered his horse was gone and his trust had been misplaced.


“When I returned to Maimana, I immediately asked about Tauruq. But my friends didn't say a word. The next day I saw Majid, who told me the horse had died of diarrhoea and been buried in Hashem’s garden.”


Travellers should remember that the availability of alcohol influences the chances of your horses being stolen.


In the Andes mountains natives use corn to make a powerful drink known as chicha. The French Long Riders Marie-Emmanuelle Tugler and Marc Witz had problems while riding through the Peruvian Andes. Locals drunk on chicha tried to steal their horses.


Modern travellers face a new type of menace, seizure of their horses by animal activists. Some members of highly motorized and urbanized societies believe that asking a horse to carry a traveller constitutes an act of cruelty.

Animal rights activists don’t understand that the life of the Long Rider is connected to the health of the animal and that when done properly, the horse concludes a journey in robust health.

The most famous equestrian traveller, Swiss Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely, was the target for such unwarranted criticism.

“One newspaper accused me of cruelty to animals. The writer failed to realise that a man who was going to entrust his life absolutely to two horses would make the comfort and welfare of those horses his first concern,” the Swiss Long Rider wrote.

In the past travellers took drastic steps to stop horse theft.

When George Roerich discovered that Kyrgyz horse thieves considered a short-tailed horse too ugly to steal, the Russian explorer cut off the tails and manes of his horses.

There are better methods available today.

Even if someone gives you a horse as a gift, you should ask the previous owner to accept a small financial token as evidence that a monetary exchange took place. This exchange of money will provide you with a reason to create a receipt. This vital document should be signed by all parties involved in the exchange of the horse’s ownership, and if possible, witnessed and signed by a neutral third party.

Positive identification is also your first line of defence if your horse is stolen. You must be able to produce visual and written documentation which is not only easily understood, it must instantly assert and confirm your legal rights.

In addition to his health certificates and proof of ownership, your horse should have a document which provides his concise description. This should include photos showing the horse from both sides, as well as front and rear.

A number of countries, such as Germany, Scotland and Holland have banned hot branding. Freeze branding is practised in many countries and micro-chipping is an increasingly popular way of identifying horses. Some countries still burn an identification number into the hoof. This is painless but must be done periodically because of hoof growth.

Papers, photos and identifying marks are all ways to help recover your horse. But your first line of defence is to discourage the thief from stealing.

Everything you can do to reduce the thief’s chances of success increases the chances that he will choose an easier target.

Gangs of horse thieves are rare. It is usually a solitary man, working alone, operating under cover of darkness, who is looking for an easy target. Heavy rain or severe cold will discourage him. But you cannot rely on the weather for protection. You must instead do everything possible to reduce the chances of a thief’s success.


Most thefts occur at night. Do not provide unwitting assistance by placing your animals in a pasture close to a road. This will encourage a thief to make a snatch and grab raid. To discourage the thief, place your camp between the horses and the road.

Don’t put your horses into a paddock then ignore them till morning. Depending on how serious the situation is, check on them at regular intervals.

No matter how careful you’ve been, don’t forget to pay attention to that vigilant guard – your horse. Veteran Long Riders learn to rely upon their horse’s superior sight, smell and hearing in dark nights and times of peril. 

French Long Rider Laura Bougault learned how important it is to remain alert.

“I was in South Africa, staying with a hospitable Zulu family, when I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of barking dogs. I rushed out of the house to find a man leading my horse, Speedy, away. When I screamed at him the horse thief ran away.”

Placing bells on your horses helps you to listen to their movements during the night.

If your horse is stolen, do not go charging after thieves without giving careful thought to what might happen if you catch up with them.

When English Long Rider Christina Dodwell realized her horse had been stolen in Kenya, she set out in search of the thieves. Fearing capture, they killed the innocent horse before escaping.

Involving the police is a serious step, so consider the situation carefully. Not all countries believe in calling the police. Even if the identity of the thief is known, local citizens may be reluctant to involve the police because of lingering fears that the authorities are corrupt, indifferent or incompetent.

Times change but horse theft is still with us.

Regardless of what motivates the thief, all equestrian travellers must remain on their guard. As Dutch Long Rider Wendy Hofstee warned, “When I rode through Ecuador, half the population was trying to steal my horses and the other half was helping me find them.”

The information in this article is a very small extract from the chapter on horse theft in the “Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration” by CuChullaine O’Reilly.

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