How thefts occur
“My tack room was cleaned out at 3am on the morning of 12 December 2015,” explains Kyalami resident Candice Hobday, of Hobday Equestrian Enterprises. “It was without a doubt well organised and planned. The intruders bypassed two electric fences, tampered with the CCTV system, and cut two very well-hidden sirens with difficult access. They pushed aside the camera that would have picked them up. From the footage on the more distant camera we were able to see three men, but beyond that we couldn’t identify them. They only left the pony saddle behind.”
Workings of a syndicate
The tack thefts occurring in many parts of South Africa are not simply random crimes but form part of a large, highly organised, syndicated effort. “Somebody has cottoned on to this opportunity and is exploiting it,” says Takis Michalakis, chairman of the Kyalami-Sun Valley-Glenferness sector crime forum and deputy chairman of the Midrand community police forum. “They have established a market, and have gone about creating a syndicate to supply it.”
Although there are many rumours about where the saddles end up, with China, Mauritius, other African countries and even the United Kingdom being suggested, there is no concrete intelligence at this time on where the syndicate is selling them, or how they are being shipped.
Once a stable yard has been targeted, information will be gathered, which will include in-depth assessment of the security systems, alarms, beams and electric fences, and what will be necessary in order to break into the tack room itself. The thieves usually only take saddles, in some cases even discarding the numnahs and girths. They are able to identify brand names and more expensive saddles, and may leave behind saddles that are clearly not valuable.
“Horse owners can be our own worst enemies when it comes to security,” Michalakis explains. “Most of us have loyal grooms who have worked for us for years, and we tend to be just as trusting about extra or temporary help that we hire, and allow them the same access and privileges. We need to screen and assess every new employee carefully, ask for references and follow them up, and vet staff more carefully, just the same way that people do in the corporate world.”
Horse owners also don’t enforce enough restrictions on the contractors and delivery staff we let onto our property, and what rights we give them. It makes it easy for information to be gathered. Access to certain areas, including the tack room, should be restricted. “We need to change our thinking, and start perceiving a tack room as a stock room because that is what it is – a store room that contains valuable stock,” Michalakis says. “In any business, the stock room will be kept locked and can be accessed by only one or two trusted people.”
Layers of security
Security in and around your tack room should be made as effective as possible. Security should be like an onion, with many different layers that might include your perimeter fence, beams, roofing, burglar bars, security door and alarm system. There is even a security system that activates pepper spray when a door is tampered with, although this might not be ideal for more absent-minded yard owners who forget to deactivate it before opening the door.
Get different suppliers to install the various precautions so that no one supplier knows the complete setup. It sounds convoluted, and it does take effort, but it can help make your security more effective depending on what your budget is. It might even be an idea to keep saddles in a separate part of your tack room, under tighter security and behind an additional barrier, while general tack, bridles, bandages, storage boxes and other items are stored in the ‘low security’ section or in a different room.
If you run a yard, Michalakis advises that you don’t bring all the saddles into your house at night to keep them safe. “We can be thankful tack thefts are not contact crimes, so for this reason you shouldn’t take your tack indoors or they may become contact crimes.” This obviously doesn’t apply to one-horse owners who stable at a yard, and who might prefer to take their saddle home with them instead of leaving it in the tack room.
Involving your live-in staff in your security measures is a way of combating tack theft. “Often, staff quarters are not secured, even though staff are also victims of crime,” Michalakis says. “If staff don’t have a panic button at their disposal, they may feel too scared and vulnerable to react – even to make a phone call – if they hear a noise outside.” Make them part of your security bubble and educate them continuously. Education and information sharing are valuable tools. It’s all about the ‘what’s in it for me’ principle. Staff must understand that the precautions are about making everyone on the premises safer. Encourage them to share information, and keep them informed about any rewards that are offered, so that they can spread the word.
It’s essential to report all tack thefts to your local police station, as well as to your community police forum. At this stage, the police are not recognising tack thefts as syndicated crime, and there is no task force investigating. For this to happen, a member of the public would need to do some hard work – step up and gather information, collate the cases, escalate it to a higher authority, push and lobby the decision-makers to prioritise it. It would take a lot of time and energy, but if a horsy person were to take the lead in doing this, the crime would end up being treated more seriously.
Insurance and identification
Having insurance on saddles is imperative. You can specify saddles on your general household insurance, or insure them as part of your equine insurance. Be sure you comply with the requirements for storing them, and that you insure them for their replacement value based on the current exchange rate. It’s a good idea to take clear photographs of new saddles and to record (and photograph if possible) any serial numbers or other identification markings that are part of the saddle.
Further info: To keep up to date and share information, please join the Facebook group ‘Stolen Saddles South Africa’.
Text: Jassy Mackenzie