Thieves Cut Tails - Why Horse Hair Theft Is On The Rise

Joyce Coates
Enterprise Staff

On an otherwise ordinary day, one or more thieves sneaked onto Charlotte O’Dell’s hobby farm last month, cut off and absconded with hair from the tails of her mammoth jack and her mule. 

What seems an odd but cruel act, unfortunately is only one among the latest wave of similar incidents occurring across the Midwest. On January 7 this year the Kansas City Star reported six separate thefts in Wyandotte County, KS by thieves who snuck into stables at night to cut and steal horses’ tails. In March, a similar theft occurred in Omaha and in South Dakota on April 26. 
Hundreds of incidents in Wyoming in 2013 spread to Colorado, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. Similar thefts were reported in South Dakota in 2004, in Montana in 2010 and elsewhere in the years between. And  now, the problem has come to Benton County.
On Thursday evening, October 19, Charlotte O’Dell came home after work and as usual went out to take care of the animals. Surprised and upset to find their tails noticeably thinner and shorter, she called a friend to come and see. They realized the tails had been cut, “scalped,” in O’Dell’s words. On Saturday she called the Sheriff’s Office  to report the incident. 
O’Dell said for years there have been no problems. The animals graze in a field fenced in by barbed wire, so she does not know how outsiders gained access to them. Tree trimmers from Southwest Electric company were working at the farm that day, but when asked, said they had not seen anyone else on the property. 
Every year during hunting season O’Dell is concerned about the possibility of hunters’ stray bullets hitting the livestock. Now, in addition, she and every other horse owner in Benton County must be alert to this new threat, and do whatever they can to protect their animals against sneak-thief attacks. 
These animals need their tails to communicate, for warmth in winter and to control pests, especially during the summer months. Sadly, for O’Dell’s jack and mule, it will take at least a year for their tail hair to grow back. One owner whose horse’s tail was stolen after being cut off nearly to the bony tip, said, “stealing its tail is like cutting off a person’s limb.” 
Animal cruelty carries fines and penalties laid out in Section 578.012 of Missouri Revised Statutes. First time offenses may be charged as misdemeanors, but for repeated offenses, or intentional acts involving “torture or mutilation, or both, consciously inflicted while the animal was alive,” violators can be charged with a felony and sentenced to up to seven years in prison.  
In medieval times it was not uncommon for vengeful men to cut off the meticulously groomed, flowing manes and tails of their enemies’ horses. A perpetrator in those days intended to insult and demean a rival knight by attacking his horse, a source of pride that reflected its owner’s masculinity, power and prestige.
Centuries later, however, thefts of horsetails and hair have rarely been motivated by personal rivalries. Trading in horsetails and hair can be lucrative and attracts legitimate dealers or otherwise.  
Some historical examples of legitimate trade: In 1912, the United States was importing and exporting horsetails or hair from China, Japan and Russia, as well as from European and many other nations. In 1952, the Navy began making paintbrushes from horsetail hair instead of hog bristles. In 1972, Leavenworth Prison paid $443,448 for 155,000 lbs. of horsetail hair for prisoners to use to make brushes. 
Turning to the “otherwise,” as long ago as 1860 in Australia, 1894 in New York, and 1916 in St. Louis, to name a few, newspapers were reporting employees sent to jail for stealing horsetails and hair. Temptation overcame one greedy secretary in 1980 in California who was arrested for stealing horsetail hair from her employer worth $20,000, and selling it from her apartment. 
Horsetail hair is sold by the pound, for as much as $400-$500 for white palomino hair. It is used in many everyday products, including: baskets, belts, brushes of all types, carpet, cloth, curlers, fabrics, fishing lines, furniture padding, hats, lariats, fishing nets, jewelry brings in as much as $1,000-$2,000 for braided horse bridles, upholstery cloth, violin and cello bows, whips, and wigs, including extensions for humans and show horses.
The horse owner victims of these crimes agree with the police and county sheriffs who investigate them that the perpetrators, whether small-time crooks or organized bands, are motivated by the opportunity to make easy money. Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers, many of them online, keep the black-market trade alive.
Cutting and stealing a horse’s tail and hair is lowdown and dishonorable. Hopefully, there will be no more of it here.