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Tail thieves baffle Colorado horse owners

Intruders are hacking the hair off several horses in a rural area southeast of Denver. The animals aren't hurt. Since the hair isn't valuable, owners wonder what the point is.

February 15, 2009|DeeDee Correll

ELBERT COUNTY, COLO. — The horses at Tom Johnson and Jim Hoff's place once had tails that hung down to their hooves.

Shampooed and combed, they gleamed, flaxen-colored, when the Belgian draft horses drew wagons for children and pranced in parades.

But a significant portion of their tails disappeared one recent night when a knife- or scissors-wielding intruder hopped the fence into their pasture and hacked away, leaving half a dozen horses and ponies with shredded stubs.

"It's a dang shame is what it is. It makes me so mad," said Hoff, 60, co-owner of Happy Trails Horse Drawn Rides, which offers wagon rides around the state. "If they were mean horses, they would have never gotten away with it."

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.

Nor would a thief earn much money from an illicit sale. Though intricately woven products can fetch hundreds of dollars, a pound of raw hair might be worth $37 to $80, depending on the color and length.

It also doesn't make sense to risk arrest to steal for personal use; horsehair is widely available for purchase, Gittes said. "It's equivalent to going and shearing someone's sheep when you can buy a bag of wool," he said.

Some have speculated that the shuttering of slaughterhouses in the U.S. in the last two years has led to a scarcity of horsehair. Others doubt that theory, because the hair is still available from slaughterhouses in other countries, and some thefts nationwide occurred before the slaughterhouse closures.

In Elbert County, Hoff and Johnson aren't sure exactly when their horses were attacked. Hoff, who lives on site, said his wife awoke a couple of weeks ago to hear their dogs barking. "She figured it was a coyote," he said.

They soon realized Prince, Ike and Sonny were missing part of their tails, which had been sliced off below the dock, or fleshy part of the tail. All were cut at a messy angle, leaving long strands dangling.

"I was sick to my stomach," said Johnson, 49. "I love shampooing them and getting them dressed up for the shows."

After reporting the incident to the sheriff, they said, they realized several other of their 15 horses and ponies also were missing tails.

The animals will suffer in the warmer months when they're unable to use their tails to swat at flies, the men said. Hoff estimated the tails grow at a rate of 3 or 4 inches a year. "When the flies get bad, those horses get miserable," he said.

The two said they may use insect repellent or look into tail extensions. "We can't let them stand out there with flies on them," Johnson said.

A suspect would face charges of animal cruelty and trespassing, Elbert County Sheriff's Investigator Mark Wilson said. But investigators have no leads.

Wilson said Hoff and Johnson had been the only ones to file a report, though other neighbors have since told the media that four or five other horses also recently lost their tails.

"Went out to feed this morning, and our old gelding had a chopped tail," one wrote in an e-mail to Hoff. "Whoever they are, they're still around."

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