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Come again? Thieves steal horse hair from stables across the country

April 2, 2009 |  3:46 pm

The equine victims of a horse-tail thief!

One of the strangest crimes we've heard of lately is one that seemingly offers no substantial monetary reward and puts the perpetrator(s?) into dangerous territory: directly behind a horse's powerful hind legs.

The crime?  Horse tail theft.

A spate of incidents occurred in rural Colorado in February, leaving horse owners fuming and horses without their primary means of fly-swatting relief. "It's a dang shame is what it is. It makes me so mad," Jim Hoff, co-owner of Happy Trails Horse Drawn Rides, said of the person or persons who stole his Belgian draft horses' formerly ground-sweeping tails. "If they were mean horses, they would have never gotten away with it." 

The thief or thieves lopped off the horses' tail hair below the bony section (called the dock or tailhead).  Our colleague DeeDee Correll explained the strange nature of the crime:

The horses were uninjured, but the bizarre theft -- and subsequent reports from neighbors that several other horses also were attacked -- has infuriated horse lovers in rural Elbert County southeast of Denver.

While rare, such thievery is not unheard of -- similar cases have occurred in recent years in Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida, as well as Australia and Canada. Last month, an elderly blue roan in Allentown, Pa., lost its tail to an illicit barber.

The cases have left owners angry but also bewildered. In Elbert County, residents are buzzing about possible motives -- from financial gain to use by a cult.

Horse hair is used in making belts, hat bands, tail extensions, violin bows and other products, but manufacturers typically purchase it in bulk from suppliers in China, which obtain the hair from slaughterhouses or live horses, said Mark Gittes, general manager for Colorado Horsehair, a Boulder-based company.

Most wouldn't buy a couple of pounds of unprocessed horsehair from an individual. "It's not a practical commercial amount to deal with," Gittes said.

So what could a thief possibly stand to gain? 

There's hardly a booming black market for horsehair, and weaving one's own belt or hat band from a stolen hair, Gittes said, would be "equivalent to going and shearing someone's sheep when you can buy a bag of wool." 

One theory is that the shutdowns of many slaughterhouses across the U.S. may have led to a horsehair shortage -- but some scoff at this suggestion, arguing that cheap horsehair in bulk is still available from other countries.  Also, they point out, cases of horsehair theft began happening before American slaughterhouses began to close in large numbers.

Hoff and his partner, Tom Johnson, say they will use insect repellent to help their horses get through the fly season -- and may even resort to using tail extensions.  (Yes, those really exist.)

One recent case of tail theft was reported just this week in Putnam Township, Michigan.  The Michigan incidents included a twist: the thief or thieves not only stole horses' tails, but also used thinning shears to remove a portion of their manes as well.  It's unclear how many horses were "vandalized" in the Michigan case.

Neither Colorado nor Michigan police have any leads in their respective cases.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: The Belgian horses whose tails were chopped in the Colorado spate of horse tail thefts.  Credit: Tom Cole / KUSA.

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