Month: December 2013

The Anti-Horse Thief Association circa 1863 – 1939

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth

“Protect the Innocent; Bring the Guilty to Justice”

In the age before the automobile, horse theft was a serious offense. After all, a horse was a person’s transportation, and in the case of a farm animal, a source of income. As the United States was in its growth stages, horse thieves flourished in the frontier areas of the country. A thief could steal a horse and hurry him across state lines or into the Indian territories where local authorities could not easily follow. It was easy, and it was lucrative.

Horse theft was a particular problem in Clark County, Missouri located on the border of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. A horse could be stolen, crossed over the nearby Des Moines River or the Mississippi River and out of the state by morning. The horses were seldom recovered, since it typically cost more to go after them was more than they were actually worth.

Major David McKee of Clark County and a group of his friends formed The Anti-Horse Theft Association (AHTA) in 1853 to combat the problem. There was one major unforeseen problem with their organization. With the advent of the American Civil War, most of the members, including Major McKee, enlisted in the army. Thievery only got worse with the chaos of the war. Rogues became more reckless and desperate—especially with stealing horses and cattle.

AHTA Founder Major David McKee

AHTA Founder Major David McKee

When Major McKee was discharged from service in 1863 due to a disability, the need for a way to curtail horse theft was greater than ever. He once again started up the group with great success. The AHTA grew and spread to many states and reached a peak membership in 1916 of 50,000.

The AHTA was not a group of vigilantes, who would chase after horse thieves, catch them and hang them from the nearest tree. They did dole out justice; not from a limb of a tree, but through the courts. The group believed in supporting and upholding the law, and the last thing they wanted to do was break the law. Rather, they worked hand in hand with law enforcement, gathered evidence and testified in court to punish horse thieves and other criminals.

This is probably why the organization grew so large. It was a way for law-abiding citizens to bring order into their lives by working with law enforcement rather than becoming helpless victims.

1909 AHTA members from Oklahoma

1909 AHTA members from Oklahoma

Although it was a “secret” organization, nearly any man could join. To become a member of the AHTA, it was only necessary that you be a citizen in good standing, male and over eighteen years old. Women weren’t completely kept out of the organization. In later years, widows of members were allowed to continue their membership when their husbands died. In addition, some chapters had Lady Auxiliaries that did good works and aided in social functions.

There were no salaried positions in the AHTA. Everything was done on a voluntary basis with only expenses paid. This kept membership relatively inexpensive.

Once you were a member, if you had a horse stolen (or other property) you would report it to the president of the group. At that point, certain actions would be put in motion.

The telegraph, and later, the telephone were used to warn authorities and other chapters of the AHTA of the theft with a description of horse, and if known, the thief. In this manner, the thief was quickly surrounded by people on the lookout for him.

July 7, 1887

July 7, 1887

The president would then assign ten or more members of the AHTA to hunt for the trail of the thief. Once the trail was discovered, at least two of the members and the owner of the horse would then be assigned to pursue the thief for as long as there was a trail to be followed—regardless of time or expense. It didn’t matter if the horse was worth $25.00 and it cost $100.00 to retrieve him. It was a matter of principal.

Once the thief was caught, he was turned over to the Vigilance Committee. It consisted of six men who would determine if there was sufficient cause for prosecution. At that point, they would turn him over to the authorities and personally assist in prosecution.

If you were picked to pursue the thief and refused without a reasonable excuse, you had to pay a fine of $5.00. If you did agree to join the chase, all of your expenses would be paid.

If you weren’t a member, and you needed help to recover a horse, the AHTA would still help you, but you had to pay them for the services.

Any member who reported that a horse was stolen, and later found out that he just wandered off would have to pay for the expenses incurred in the search for his horse.

The AHTA also had a publication where they listed missing horses and property called the AHTA Weekly News. It was devoted exclusively to items concerning the organization, horse thieves and other livestock and property theft. The publishers also liked to list any particularly steep sentences given to horse thieves to use as a scare tactic to prevent future thefts. At its peak, it had a circulation of over 20,000.

One of the reasons the AHTA was so successful was because the members didn’t have to worry about crossing state lines when they were bringing back the thief. This was a problem for law enforcement officers because of the slowness in getting extradition orders. Major McKee devised a clever way around this. This is how it worked. If the thief was chased into Iowa, part of the group would stay behind in Missouri; close to the state line. When bringing the thief back, they would take him to the line and tell him to, “get out of Iowa and do it quick.” The thief obligingly crossed the state line only to be apprehended by AHTA members on the other side waiting for him.

1918 AHTA Oklahoma Members

1918 AHTA Oklahoma Members

The organization was very effective. It is stated that from 1899 to 1909 the Oklahoma AHTA recovered stolen horses and other livestock valued at $83,000. Four hundred suspected thieves were caught and 272 of them were convicted. That was just in the state of Oklahoma.

Decline in membership started with the advent of World War I. Just like during in the Civil War, many of its members joined the armed services and left the AHTA to struggle on without them. After the war, a depression in 1921 didn’t help much, either. Most members of the organization lived in rural areas. Although the 1920’s may have been a booming time in the cities, rural areas never saw such prosperity; causing membership to even decline further.

As automation took over, and horses were used less, stealing them became a misdemeanor offense. Eventually in 1926, the Anti-Horse Thief Association changed its name to the Anti-Thief Association in hopes of preserving the organization. Their mission was now to detect and suppress all crime. Instead of bolstering the group, many of the older members dropped their membership altogether.

Times were changing, and the AHTA had trouble changing with them. The Great Depression made money very scarce in rural areas. Every dollar counted. Undoubtedly, the dust storms from 1933-1939 in the Plains States, caused by extensive drought and inappropriate farming methods resulting in extreme poverty and mass migration also hurt membership in the AHTA. People just had much bigger things to worry about.

Above the horse-shoe and inside the outer circle of the official pin were the words, “Semper Fiedles,”—The Latin Motto—“Always Faithful.”

Above the horse-shoe and inside the outer circle of the official pin were the words, “Semper Fiedles,”—The Latin Motto—“Always Faithful.”

In time, the AHTA just faded away, except in a few places where it has evolved into a social club. One of them is Nepeuskun, Wisconsin, where they have an annual hearty meal of oyster stew. The AHTA is the oldest active organization in Arenzville, Illinois, where the organization contributes to community projects. Another holdout is in the tiny town of Bentonville, Ohio. They also have an annual banquet, which is held every April. Anyone can join their group by sending a dollar and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a lifetime membership to:

Bentonville Anti-Horse Thief Association
c/o Verna Naylor
7785 State Route 41
Bentonville, OH 45101

All you will get, though, is a membership card and bragging rights. Bentonville also has a memorial for the AHTA in their town that was erected in 1961 and a state historical marker.

Although the remaining AHTA organizations no longer work to retrieve stolen horses, that does not mean horse theft no longer exists. There are no solid statistics available, but it is believed that between 40,000 to 55,000 horses are stolen each year. It is relatively easy to take a horse, put it in a trailer, haul it to an auction and make a quick dollar. Sadly, many horses that go through an auction end up at a slaughterhouse.

This article was written by Judi Daly in cooperation with the Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, and used with permission by the author.  

Judi Daly
The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation

Artwork by H.M. Wilder from the book: The Voyage of the Rattletrap

More interesting reading regarding the history of the Anti-Horse Thief Association >>

A Cowboy Tradition meets Modern Technology

1883 Wyoming Cattle Brands Book

1883 Wyoming Cattle Brands Book

In times past, livestock owners relied upon branding as a method of identification and even proof of ownership.  Branding books were made to chronicle registered brands, their owners and ranches.  These books are still in use today, and even provided to law enforcement personnel to aide in identifying lost or stolen livestock. We are very excited at Equine Quick Response (EQR) to embark upon a project set to take these noble traditions into the world of modern technology, primarily for the benefit of horse owners.  This technology will allow law enforcement, veterinarians, sale barn attendees, and private parties to simply snap a cell phone or digital photo of a suspect or found horse, as well as a close-up of its brand, and submit to EQR right from their smart phone or computer for identification and ownership confirmation purposes. Membership will place brand, contact and property information into a retrievable national database.  Annual or life-time memberships will be available with EQR, with our database being set to launch this coming February 2014.


EQR’s national database will utilize modern technology with the tradition of branding.  In addition to being able to register your brand to identify your horse and provide crucial contact information for the safe return of your horse, EQR members will also be able to:

  • Post provided signs and window/vehicle decals serving as theft deterrent for each member; displaying EQR registry with national database and contact information
  • Order decals of personal, registered brand to apply to truck/trailers
  • Register trailers/trucks with EQR and utilize the same identification services offered for horses
  • Order custom branding irons

In the event that a horse is lost or stolen, EQR will initiate a media blast to veterinarians, border/customs, US processing plants and state law enforcement with contact info, side views of horse, close up/location of brand, and contact for specific visual identification.


Yellowstone Monitor., September 10, 1908

Yellowstone Monitor., September 10, 1908

Livestock branding is a technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner. Originally, livestock branding only referred to a hot brand for large stock, though the term is now also used to refer to other alternative techniques such as freeze branding. Other forms of livestock identification include inner lip or ear tattoos, earmarking, ear tagging, and RFID tagging with a type of microchip. The semi-permanent paint markings used to identify sheep are called a paint or colour brand. In the American West, branding evolved into a complex marking system still in use today.

The act of marking livestock with fire-heated marks to identify ownership has origins in ancient times, with use dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Among the ancient Romans, the symbols used for brands were sometimes chosen as part of a magic spell aimed at protecting animals from harm.

The unique brand meant that cattle owned by multiple ranches could then graze freely together on the open range. Cowboys could then separate the cattle at “roundup” time for driving to market. Cattle rustlers using “running irons” were ingenious in changing brands. Brands became so numerous that it became necessary to record them in books that the ranchers could carry in their pockets. Laws were passed requiring the registration of brands, and the inspection of cattle driven through various territories. Penalties were imposed on those who failed to obtain a bill of sale with a list of brands on the animals purchased.

Free-range or open-range grazing is less common today than in the past. However, branding still has its uses. The main purpose is in proving ownership of lost or stolen animals. Many western US states have strict laws regarding brands, including brand registration, and require brand inspections. In many cases, a brand on an animal is considered prima facie proof of ownership.

Brand Books are used by law enforcement officials, brand inspectors, and association investigators to record and track livestock movement, deter loss of livestock by straying or theft, and prosecute thieves. Brand books are made available to law enforcement for free, while others may purchase from their County Exentsion Agents. Some states have their brand books available online.


Library of Congress:

On the subject of lip tattoos

luck-lip-tattooMost breeds of horses racing in North America are required to have a lip tattoo for identification purposes prior to their first race. This tattoo is inside the upper lip and is linked to the registration papers to identify the horse and owner. The identifying lip tattoo was started in 1947 by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau and was shown to be so effective that now most states require a tattoo on any horse who will be racing.

Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds and Quarter Horses are typically tattooed for racing purposes, however, there are those who utilize the tattoo registration having no intent of racing.  Most Appaloosas are tattooed whether they race or not.  Arabians are also tattooed with the last six digits of the horse’s registration certificate number.

Why are horses tattooed?

Tattoos are an additional means of identification of a race horse. They are used along with the horse’s markings, color, age and sex.  The horse identifier at the racetrack verifies that each horse entered in a race matches this information as recorded on its official registration certificate.  The tattoo is meant to be a guard against connections entering one horse (a ringer) in place of another. Not only is the number checked during the morning vet exam, it will be confirmed once again when the horse enters the paddock or saddling enclosure for that afternoon’s race. Ringers almost never happen these days.  The tattoos are also useful for identifying stolen horses, and even obtaining history on a retired racehorse you may adopt.

Is it possible to register a horse tattoo with EQR?

Yes, it certainly is possible to register a horse tattoo with EQR, however,  there are limitations of not having an exterior visual brand, which may lessen the opportunity for a “non-horse person” to identify your horse in the event of loss, theft or disaster. The majority of law enforcement professionals and volunteers may not be comfortable lifting a horses lip, or may not know to look there for identifying marks.

The Jockey Club
About Horse Racing
Hello Race Fans

Our horses depend on us

mark hazelOur domesticated horses depend on us to provide them with all their needs. As horse owners, keeping them safe is one of our primary considerations, and responsibilities. At EQR we know what it means to care for a 1200 pound animal like a family member. We, too, are horse people.

Our team’s expertise in the equine industry, emergency management services, law enforcement, customer service and animal cruelty gives us a diverse knowledge base ready for action. When your horse is registered with EQR, you have our entire team on your side.

Photo by Mark Hazel (used with permission)

EQR offers economical identification method


EQR offers a way for the average person to have the ability to “identify” through the economic process of brand registration; no scanning or high tech identification equipment required. A photo of your horse’s brand, and basic description of the horse, provides identification and a way for your horse to be tracked back to you.