Horse theft is the crime of stealing horses. A person engaged in stealing horses is known as a horse thief. Horse theft was very common throughout the world prior to widespread car ownership. Punishments were often severe for horse theft, with several cultures pronouncing the sentence of death upon actual or presumed thieves. Several societies were formed in the US to prevent horse theft and apprehend horse thieves. However, horse theft continues to occur throughout the world, as horses are stolen for their meat, for ransom, or in disputes between their owners and other persons.
Horse theft was a well-known crime in medieval and early modern times and was severely prosecuted in many areas. While many crimes were punished through ritualized shaming or banishment, horse theft often brought severe punishment, including branding, torture, exile and even death. According to one 18th century treatise, the use of death as a punishment for horse theft stretches back as far as the first century AD, when the Germanic Chauci tribe would sentence horse thieves to death, while murderers would be sentenced to a fine. This practice derived from the wealth of the populace being in the form of livestock which ranged over large areas, meaning that the theft of animals could only be prevented through fear of the harsh punishment that would result.
Horse theft was harshly punished in the French Bordeaux region in the 15th-18th centuries. Punishments ranged from whipping to a lifetime sentence of service on a galley ship. This latter punishment was also given to perpetrators of incest, homicide and poisoning, showing the severity with which horse theft was viewed by the judiciary. For the rural English county of Berkshire in the 18th century, horse theft was considered a major property crime, along with stealing from dwellings or warehouses, sheep theft, highway robbery and other major thefts. In 19th-century Russia, horse theft made up approximately 16 percent of thefts of peasant property; however, there were no reported thefts of horses from estate property. The offense of stealing a horse was the most severely punished of any theft on Russian estates, due to the importance of horses in day-to-day living. Flogging was the usual punishment for horse thieves, combined with the shaving of heads and beards, and fines of up to three times the value of the horse if the animal had been sold.
The term horse thief came into great popularity in the United States during the 19th century. During that time the Great Plains states, Texas, and other western states were sparsely populated and negligibly policed. As farmers tilled the land and migrants headed west through the Great Plains, their horses became subject to theft. Since these farmers and migrants depended on their horses, horse thieves garnered a particularly pernicious reputation because they left their victims helpless or greatly handicapped by the loss of their horses. The victims needed their horses for transportation and farming. Such depredation led to the use of the term horse thief as an insult, one that conveys the impression of the insulted person as one lacking any shred of moral decency.
In the United States, the Anti Horse Thief Association, first organized in 1854 in Clark County, Missouri, was an organization developed for the purposes of protecting property, especially horses and other livestock, from theft, and recovering such property if and when it was stolen. Originally conceived by farmers living in the area where Missouri, Illinois and Indiana intersect, it soon spread, with the first charter organization in Oklahoma Territory being created in 1894. By 1916 the associated numbered over 40,000 members in nine central and western US states, and a drop in horse thefts had been noted. Between 1899 and 1909, members of the Oklahoma branch of the AHTA recovered $83,000 worth of livestock and saw the conviction of over 250 thieves. A similar group, which operated mainly in Ohio, was the Bentonville Anti-Horse Thief Society. Men suspected of being thieves would be pursued by members of the organization, and often hung without trial. The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves was a third such organization that operated in the United States, this one in Dedham, Massachusetts. Most of these clubs became defunct or developed into social clubs with the decline of horse theft in the US.
Horse theft is still relatively common, with an estimated 40,000 horses a year being taken from their lawful owners by strangers or opponents in civil or legal disputes. Stolen Horse International is one modern-day organization in the US that works to reconnect stolen horses with their owners. Horse are sometimes stolen for their meat, or sometimes for ransom. Punishment for horse theft can still be severe, as one woman in Arkansas was sentenced to 60 years in prison for stealing five horses and equestrian equipment; one of the horses was later found dead, while the others were recovered. Horse thefts today can in some cases be solved through the use of microchips, which is required in the European Union on horses born after 2009 and also often seen in other countries.
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