Helpful Advice For Finding a Missing Horse

Last month we discussed how horses can
help to find missing people. This month,
we tackle the topic of lost horses.

In recent months, news has spread about the ongoing search for a missing horse in Massachusetts who was still missing at press time. Surprisingly, the problem of horses getting lost while riding or camping is not uncommon. In remote areas, horses can be missing for several months before they are located and safely brought home. Sadly, some horses are never found. Let’s find out how trail horses can be kept secured at campsites, what to do if they run away from a campsite, and the best ways to go about swiftly finding them.


Having an attitude of “it won’t ever happen to me” won’t help you much when you realize that your horse is lost. A more practical point of view may be “anything is possible” and to be prepared for the all-encompassing “anything.” Preparation will not guarantee freedom from crisis, but it will facilitate dealing with such situations.

Proof of Ownership

Debi Metcalfe of Stolen Horse International reminds us that “just because a horse is found, doesn’t mean you can get it back”; you need to be able to prove that horse belongs to you. We carry photos of our children, and our equine kids shouldn’t be any different. Keep current photos of your horse—taken from several angles—with you, or at least in your trailer, when riding. Photos, breeding and identification registration paperwork and a current Coggins certificate should be kept in your vehicle to readily show distinguishing markings and proof of ownership should your horse get temporarily separated from you.

ID Please

There are several identification methods available for equines; some quite simple, others more complex.

Any and all tack should be marked with the owner’s driver’s license number and state. Permanently marking the underside of saddles and bridles with this information is a practical and inexpensive starting point and one of the best ways to trace back to the owner, according to Debi. Attaching metal tags to bridles and halters can be a secondary means of easy identification.

Similar to home security signs on lawns, posting signs on trailers and at campsites that warn that the horses have a form of permanent identification helps to deter thieves.

Microchips are fast becoming a popular option for horse identification and owner location. A microscopic chip is injected into the horse’s neck just under the skin along the nuchal ligament. The process of inserting one is quick and relatively painless when done by an experienced veterinarian. The serial number on the chip can be recorded with several registries. It is important that the serial numbers are in fact registered to be of any help. Remember to keep personal information updated in the database so rescuers are able to find you if they find your horse.

Lip tattoos are common for racehorses but can also be used as a means of identifying non-racehorses. Although it is permanent, they tend to become less clear as the tattoo ages, which can be a downside.

With the exception of some Standardbred racehorses, freeze marks are burned on a horse’s neck and serve as a permanent marking. The freezing iron damages the skin cells that control pigmentation, leaving a legible brand. The first brand symbol signifies the state of domicile, the year of birth is represented by the stacked symbols, and the underlined symbols note the registration number or assigned state number. Owners can be found by comparing the brand to breed registries.

Another permanent, yet still humane, branding method is hot branding. Hot branding leaves a clearly visible, deeper scar in the hide. Brands can consist of registry numbers, ranch logos, or symbols. Specific brand symbols are on file with state livestock agencies and brand inspectors.

Although hoof branding is not permanent, owners can use this method as a temporary way of branding their horses. Any type of information (registration number, phone number, or postal codes) can be branded into the face of a hoof with a hot branding iron. Hoof brands need to be reapplied at least twice per year as the hoof grows out. As long as the procedure is performed correctly, the process should not cause pain or harm the hoof.

Hold Your Horses

When camping with horses, it is your responsibility to keep them safely confined. This may mean a bit of work long before the camping excursion. Is your horse willing to quietly and patiently stand tied for extended periods of time? Does he respect and give to pressure from a fastened lead line? Is he able to relax in strange settings? Even if you have to practice camping in your back field, don’t leave on an overnight trip before you are able to answer yes to the above questions.

Bells are a fine way to keep tabs on horses when confined either by tying, hobbles, or fencing at a campsite. If they should somehow escape their method of restraint, especially at night, the sound should help to locate them.

Portable fencing is probably the most reliable option for camping containment. Fence panels and round pens are both safe and manageable. Don’t rely on electric fencing since horses can bolt through it if spooked.

High lines and picket lines are options for those who don’t have access to portable fencing. High lines allow horses to be safely tied between two secure points (trees or trailers). Picket lines are attached to a tree trunk or a stake and a hobble for freedom to graze. With each method, just be sure that horses are free from being tangled around one another or other items.

Hobbles that are used without picket lines allow horses a bit more freedom. Don’t underestimate a horse’s ability to still venture away even when the front legs are limited with these devices.

Lost on the Trail

Riding with other horses doesn’t automatically guarantee that a spooked horse will remain with his trail mates, as was the case with the missing horse in Massachusetts. Despite traveling with other horses, it didn’t keep him from disappearing out of sight when he spotted a herd of cows.

If you are thrown from your horse and your horse decides to bolt, another rider can follow (not chase) the runaway horse. Examine

hoof prints for evidence of which direction the horse is traveling. Try to remain off the trail to cause the least amount of disruption to the tracks of the runaway horse. Not always, but sometimes, horses tend to head towards the ride starting point when free on the trail. Have a second rider head towards the original trailhead to see if the horse arrives there.

Continue to check the original spot where the horse was lost. Many times, lost horses are found at that point of origin or not far from there. Equines are naturally inclined to run away up hills so be sure to search hilltops for loose horses.

Campsite Flight

To ensure that your herd remains at the campsite several tips can be implemented. Keep your horses nearby and in full view at all times. This is a way to easily oversee that they remain safe and the location will promote early detection if they should break free. Use different types of confinement methods among the herd. Fence in the alpha horse and tie the others or hobble a few while the bulk of the herd remains tethered. Never graze (even with a constraint method) more than half of your herd at any given time. The risk of losing the herd is too great if the flight instinct is suddenly triggered.

Search Party

If you can’t immediately locate your horse, the first step should be to spread the word of the search. Immediately contact Stolen Horse International to assist with producing flyers that are designed to both identify and recover the missing horse. Notify fellow trail riders and campers of the missing horse’s characteristics and the area where he was last seen. Be sure to enlist the help of any and all trail users. Contact the park rangers, local police department and animal control officer and provide copies of your photos and other pertinent information to them. Promote exposure of the search by posting flyers, notifying the media, and announcing information on equine websites.

For searches that are not instantly successful, extend news of the search to area horse contacts including farriers, veterinarians, livestock auctioneers, and slaughterhouses. Horses have managed to be found through swift and extensive notification of the entire community.

Steal Away

According to the president of Stolen Horse International, Inc., NetPosse, a nonprofit organization formed to help locate and rescue missing horses, the majority of missing horses are lost. But what may have started out as a lost horse can end up becoming a stolen horse. “They tend to fall into the wrong hands. After all, lost horses don’t show up at auctions or get a set of new shoes on their own.” The organization sends out announcements and flyers issued under the “Idaho Alert.” The alert is named after a horse that was safely recovered and as a result, inspired the formation of the group ten years ago. Based on a study completed in the late ’90s as many as 40,000 horses turn up missing each year nationwide. Their mission is to educate horsemen about how to keep their horses safe along with assisting in locating and recovering lost equines. For more information, contact or write to: NetPosse, P.O. Box 1341 Shelby, NC 28151 or call 704-484-2165.


Beth, along with her husband and son, lives on a farm in Southern New Hampshire. She is a Bay State Trail Riders member, Barre Riding and Driving Club member and former Director of the Waters Farm Trail Ride Weekend event. Trail riding in the great outdoors serves to renew her spirit and nourish her soul.

If you would like to suggest a trail related subject or pose a question, please email it to with Trail Talk noted in the memo line. We look forward to hearing from you!

Categories: Feature Articles