In which I discuss some strategies to know regarding lost horses

At the ride last weekend, some dogs scared a horse who then ran off into the wilderness with her saddle and bridle but without her rider.

If that happens to you (and I hope that it never does!), I want you to know some stuff.

And yes, I learned most of this stuff the hard way, when a horse I took to an endurance ride in Prineville Oregon got scared in the middle of the night, blew through his electric pen, and was lost for 4 days.  

The Toad took his gelding buddy with him when he ran, so we couldn't use his buddy as "bait" to lure him home.  However, if you lose a horse and NOT your horse's buddy, take the buddy with you when you search. With any luck, the buddy horse will holler and your horse will come a-running.

We wasted valuable time searching the creek bottoms and canyon floors for our horses, because knowledgeable people told us that horses are lazy and will head downhill instead of uphill.  Our horses were Arab geldings fit for 50-mile rides; they were also adrenaline fiends.  They ran uphill.  If your horse gets lost, think about where s/he is most likely to run, and go there first.

Toad was never food-motivated, and neither was his buddy.  If I go hunting for a food-motivated horse, I take a "shaker can" with me--either a can with grain in it, or something that sounds like a grain can that I've cobbled together from stuff I can find quickly.  I've experimented with teaching Fee to respond to a whistle I keep on my zipper pull (I can't do that loud whistle with two fingers in my mouth, but I wish I could...) but she isn't consistant about coming to it.  Yet.

Toad was a distinctively-marked bay gelding with a ride number written on his butt when he left camp; I could describe him easily to other searchers.  If your horse is a plain brown wrapper:

I recommend that you add some kind of identification so that people can tell that the horse they've found is yours.  

The photo (above) is Fiddle.  The photo (below) is her cousin, Ryan's standardbred mare Whiskey.  
Could you tell these mares apart easily without tack?  You see my point.

Whenever we leave home for a trip longer than a single day, I braid a dog tag into each horse's mane with a pipecleaner.  The tag is shaped like a skull+crossed bones, and engraved on it is the horse's name and a cellphone number.  Since there are pirate flags all over my camper and trailer, I figure just the shape of the tag alone might bring my horse back home if she wanders and is captured.
Of course, Fiddle has a very distinguishing mark:  her freeze brand, which shows her USTA registration number.
 I take photos of the horses each summer around July 4th, and each winter around Xmas so that I have recent pictures showing their conformation and markings with a seasonally appropriate haircoat.  I hope I never have to put these photos on a "LOST HORSE" poster...but if I need them, I've got them.

The photos also have ME in them:  proof that I had possession when the picture was taken, which a sheriff will appreciate.  I also had a livestock brand inspection done for each of the horses, and the laminated ID card issued by the state is kept in a secure location in the horse trailer.

Who do you call if your horse is lost?

Here's a starter list:

  • Contact everyone within shouting distance, including neighbors, riding partners, other riders, and other people riding their bikes, walking their dogs, and hiking with their kids.
  • If your horse is lost in the wilderness, contact the local chapter(s) of the BackCountry Horsemen.  Many of these people will also be members of the local Search and Rescue, if there is one--and if they aren't, they will know how to contact S&R.
  • Call law enforcement, including city cops and sheriffs.  If you're near a state road or highway, call the state police also.  If you're in a park, call the rangers.
  • Contact animal control offices.  Ask the cops--some areas have multiple animal control agencies, and you want to talk to them all.
  • Stop and talk to construction crews, if any are working nearby.
  • Visit local auction yards.  If somebody finds your horse and wants to sell it because they haven't seen your posters, you will want the auction staff watching for it so it doesn't get sold to a kill buyer.
  • File a report on, which operates a nationwide alert system for lost and stolen horses.
  • If the horse is in an open area, consider enlisting a local airplane or helicopter pilot in the search.
  • TALK TO KIDS.  Kids will keep looking long after the adults have lost hope and interest.
Make up a simple poster with this information:
breed, gender, color + markings
last known location of the horse, and date that it was lost
your contact info (tearaway strips are good)

Make a billion color copies of the poster.  Post it everywhere.  Send it to everyone.  Gas stations, feed stores, gear shops, grocery stores.  Send it to the local newspaper.  Send the poster via email to everyone also.

Then grab your shaker-can and put on your sturdiest walking shoes, and get out there and look.

Most of the lost horse cases I know of are found, usually within a week.

Sometimes lost horses are gone for a month or more.  Keep looking.  It's hard, I know.  Keep looking.

And know that all of our thoughts are with Misty and her missing mare Sophie.  I'll let y'all know the progress on that one.


  1. Lost horse stories scare me so badly. They had a herd of loose horses at the Mustang Memorial one year, following a big storm. They were gone for 2 weeks and there were infrared helicopters searching the pines for days. I've also heard stories of horses getting caught in thickets and giving up... just standing quietly until they eventually starve to death. There was one who got swept down a river in Maine a few years ago and ended up in such a thicket... in swampland that was chest deep in water. They found her, but it was a close call! So scary. Good tips.

  2. Yes, losing a horse IS scary, and not all are found safely (

    However, if Sophie can avoid tack entanglement, she is surrounded by ample food and water--the elk near camp are nearly obese!

    There will be more search parties heading out this weekend. I'll post here when there's news.

  3. From my experience searching for lost dogs, may I add one more suggestion? Get someone who maybe can't help out with the physical search to devote their attention to posting online - online classifieds like craigslist and local community classifieds, but also horse forums, dog forums, chicken forums, white water rafting forums, local hiking forums - heck, anywhere that people who care about animals and/or engage in outdoor activties might be reading. Oh..and contact ANY outdoor clubs in the area (you can usually find phone numbers on line or check with the nearest library for a list relevant to where you are)- we have had 'eyes in the sky' from hang gliding and soaring clubs, feet on the ground from geocaching and orientation clubs, naturalists, youth groups, camps. Being a long weekend, there will be lots of people out there who just might see a horse. Best wishes.

  4. Good post!

    I'm very glad to have such a distinctive looking critter. I already do most of what you suggest - I use a colorful ribbon to braid Dixie's dog tag in her mane. Photos with the owner in the picture are a good idea! My heart goes out to the person who lost her horse. :(

  5. Having lost a horse for a few hours before all additional information to prevent it again is appreciated. The several hours I was wandering the woods looking for Rose gave me plenty of motivation to buy Rose tags for both herself and her tack. Luckily another rider chased her down the road before she hit the major highway but she was close. I hate the thought of that ever happening again but I know it happens.

    So how are you training Fee to come at a whistle? Rose usually will come at her name but its not reliable.

  6. Having a horse who has dumped me and run off at full tilt so not even a dust cloud remains, that is a huge fear. HUGE.

    Hoping the lost one is found quickly.

    While I'm here, Fiddle is beautiful.


  7. It seems to be taking forever to find the mare... I worry more with each day that passes. Hopefully she has a breast collar on - at least it usually helps to keep the saddle on top...
    Informative article!

  8. I will be getting a dog tag to braid into Hudson's mane for trail riding. Brilliant.

    I wish you hadn't had this particular inspiration for the post though, how is the search going?

    I've heard our local mounted search and rescue hauled out to hunt for a loose horse, is that a possibility? The horse found them...looking for other horses for comfort.


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