Chicago Sun-Times

Hoof beat: Theft of prize horse looks like inside job

August 9, 2003


With a flashlight as their guide, the horse thieves walked through a darkened barn, up a 30-foot ramp and past prized stallions to a remote part of the Noble Horse barn in Old Town. They walked out with Hunter, a white male Lippizzaner horse.

Chicago police are not commenting, but that's how employees at Noble Horse barn in the 1400 block of North Orleans say Hunter was stolen Thursday morning. And they also believe he was taken by someone who knew the barn and possibly the horse.

"If they knew horses or were just interested in cashing in, they walked right by the expensive ones to take a sweet little horse,'' said Laura Steffee, who owns horses at the stable. "They would have had to choose him. They would have had to go find him. They didn't take the expensive ones. They didn't take the ones that were easy to get.''

Steffee said Hunter, part quarter-horse, would sell for at least $30,000; the stallions for $75,000.

Some employees at the barn think maybe Hunter was targeted because of his affable nature, which would make it easy to spirit him out of the barn. And now they fear he's been sold at one of countless auctions where horses change hands either for sport or for slaughter.

In the hours after the theft, a worldwide network of horse lovers began sharing information about Hunter in an attempt to find him and return him to his owners at Noble. Employees at the stable worked for 36 hours straight calling auction houses to see if the horse had turned up.

"When a horse is gone, somebody's heart is usually breaking, and that's what we care about,'' said Debi Metcalfe, founder of Stolen Horse International Inc., an organization that works on recovery of stolen horses and prevention of thefts.

Given Hunter's condition, she said, he is not likely to be headed for slaughter.

But he could be sold and resold for as little as $150 while he is on the auction circuit.

"There's circuits that traders move between, and you're going to see the same horses turn up,'' Metcalfe said. "They get loaded onto a trailer. They go to a sale. They get put on another trailer. . . . If you're lucky, the horse will find a home and not go through all that. And if the horse is really lucky, it won't deteriorate so much.

"It's like you're chasing a needle in a haystack, and the haystack keeps moving.''

Metcalfe said it's estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 horses are stolen each year. The auction houses--and the slaughtering--are legal.

Steffee said the first employee to arrive at the barn Thursday saw two men walking another horse into the barn at 6 a.m.--something that wouldn't be unusual because horses are often brought back to the barn from a veterinarian's office at that hour. They now think the thieves tried to rustle that horse but it wouldn't enter their trailer.

Hunter was already in the trailer, Steffee said. Employees realized Hunter was gone by about 9:30 a.m. when they began feeding and then saw that locks on the gates had been cut.

The theft has shaken the employees at the barn, who have become quite close to the roughly 25 horses housed there. Hunter had been trained to perform in an upcoming dinner show the stable will present.

"We're part of their lives, and to know you've lost one, this is terrible,'' said Hanna Biskie, a 22-year-old rider at the barn.