A Miracle Called Idaho

by Debi Metcalfe

Miracles are very rare in everyday life. Debi Metcalfe tells her story of Idaho, a stolen horse found through dedication and perseverance by her family and strangers. You may want to save this story to read at bedtime.

Idaho was stolen on September 26, 1997 from our pasture. Fifty-one weeks later, on September 17, 1998 we found her and brought her home. This is a miracle in our life. Many letters have poured in with congratulations. Many of you thought we would never see our horse again. We often had the same thought but one constant remained in our search for Idaho... hope.

Idaho and Harold going out of the pasture for their last ride before she was stolen.

We always felt that if she had not been slaughtered or put to death, that if we searched long enough, she would be found. It would take time and a lot of it but we could have never guessed how much. We had people all over the USA, Canada and other countries looking for Idaho. The question that kept damping our spirits was if she was alive or not. We could not have kept going if we had not received, on the Internet, letters from all over the world offering help and encouragement daily. Let me start at the beginning...

There were six horses stolen in surrounding counties about the same time Idaho was stolen. We learned this information only through all of our hard work. Law enforcement agencies in many cases do not communicate with each other, concerning stolen horses, across county lines. After all, it is just a horse. We are sure the thieves were aware of this because they had not stolen more than one horse from each county. All stolen horses were in a 40-50 mile radius of each other. We have talked with many people who have had horses stolen. Except for one person, all are families with pleasure horses without any connections to the world of horse trading and sales.

Idaho right before she was stolen. The head photo that led to her identification becuase of the markings on her face.

In one case a young girl found a man in the pasture with her horse. She ran to her mom as the man walked to his car. The mother recorded the car's license. The man had a bucket, lead rope and halter in his hand. You ask what can he do with a car? Cell phones! He gets the horse and calls for the trailer. This is how a lot of horses are stolen. Who would suspect a car?

In our state intent to steal is a felony but the police officer didn't know that. No charges were brought against this man since he did nothing but "trespass." Does it take a rocket scientist to figure out his intention?

During this year we have contacted many horse traders, auctioneers, feed stores, and sale barns, etc. The Horse media published information about her and in some cases would write stories on horse thievery. We have been to many sales and put black and white flyers on windshields. We started with color flyers but that was very expensive and we ran out of money. One person donated 500 color copies for us!

We have found that sending flyers to many auctions is of little use. We have found that many of the flyers were taken down. It is our feeling that due to the cash flow generated by all of these stolen horses going through sales, it is easier and more profitable to look the other way. We are not saying that all auctions, owners and auctioneers fall into this category but we certainly ran into many who did.

Son Casey feeding Idaho upon her return.

Keep in mind that in the end we found out our horse was stolen by a part time auctioneer and our horse was actually bought by the owner of a sale barn in Tennessee three days after she was stolen. Upon finding out the horse was stolen, the owner called the thief to come get the horse so he could get his money back. A paper trail and other police documents support this information. The barn owner probably knew about our horse from us since we called sales, sent faxes and flyers the weeks following her theft.

Our letters included pleas to help us put up flyers, print flyers, to create stolen horse sections on web pages, and to include our story in horse publications, etc. Many people assisted us with our efforts. One person helped guide us in how to interact with the news media, law enforcement, and sales. Another person sent poems, quotes, and antidotes that were uncannily timely with our emotions. Others people were sneaking around pastures in other states looking for our horse when we received tips from far away.

Because of these brave people we have identified several "suspects" of trafficking in stolen horses. When we needed a background check on a "person of question" somewhere in the US, someone would find the information for us.

There were the letters from other theft victims like us. We remember having mixed feelings when one would be found - happy for the owners but sad it was not ours. Now we are happy for us and sad for the ones not found. To all of you who are still looking, our hearts are with you. We will continue to help find your horses too and hope you will feel the same happiness we did the day Idaho was found.

The response to Idaho's theft from total strangers has overwhelmed us. Through encouragement, we also started our quest to educate the pubic about horse theft, prevention, recovery, identification, etc.; a quest we will continue. When Idaho was stolen, as for many victims of crimes, our trust in people was shattered. That combined with the loss that we felt affected our outlook on everyone. Our son was so scared that the people who took Idaho might come back and get him that he slept in our room for a long time. (We are happy to report that he is back in his own room now.)

We understand that with any crime there are normal reactions to be expected. We experienced many emotions except anger, at least not too much of it. I guess we used the anger through a positive outlet, looking for Idaho.

In the process of recovery the people on the net and the many who called were the ones who ultimately helped us back to being able to trust again. In this world not many want to take the time to help another, especially a stranger.

Each day another stranger was helping us. Many times we sat in front of the computer or on the phone just amazed at the help that poured in. Sometimes it came when we felt like giving up but we couldn't because we had to answer a letter or take care of something someone sent us.

These people's actions, no matter how big or small, not only helped us find Idaho but helped to repair our souls and trust in humanity.

An arrest in North Carolina of a man who had in his possession two stolen horses from Tennessee and a stolen trailer from Shelby, North Carolina where we live came as a major break. Through much persistence we finally got valuable information from the sheriff's department relating to that arrest.

That information led to a man in Cleveland, Tennessee which was the last known person to have possession of Idaho. He said that he had Idaho in April, but he really had had her much earlier.

Labor Day weekend Harold and I decided to take a spontaneous trip and headed to Nashville, Tennessee. My mother had died a couple of weeks before and we just needed to get away. We never made it to Nashville. We felt almost as if we were being led in another direction and changed our plans while driving down the road.

We ended up in Cleveland, Tennessee on Sunday. As luck would have it we passed a rodeo sign with the name of the sale barn where Idaho was sold on September 29, 1997.

We stopped and asked directions to the barn, traveled there and put up flyers. We had a very strange feeling standing in that empty sale barn. Some very poor looking horses were in the paddocks out back and my heart went out to them. We talked with some male members of some families who live in the surrounding area, some of their neighbors, and neighbors of the last known owner of Idaho.

More flyers were posted in convenience stores, restaurants, etc. We then traveled to Chattanooga for the night. The next day on the way back, we turned one exit too soon near Cleveland and stopped to ask directions. We put another flyer up in that convenience store.

One week later on Sunday we got a call from a person who saw the flyer. That person told us without a doubt they had seen our horse. They recognized the head immediately and continued to tell us that they had seen this horse in several horse shows and had even talked to family members who now owned the horse. The caller promised to ask around and find out the name of the current owner and any other pertinent information because they were sure of the identity of the horse.

They called back the next day with the name, address and phone number of the current owner. The caller said the horse had a spot on the left side. Idaho's spot was on the right side. On the following Wednesday morning I received an e-mail from someone I had told about the tip. It very simply said, "Debi, I wouldn't discount that lead; after all, I get left and right mixed up, maybe they do too!" I called the number immediately and within minutes of talking to the woman she said, "This is your horse." We talked about color, personality traits, gait and many more things. She seemed convinced but I still wasn't. Could it really be after all this time we had finally located her? I sent her an e-mail flyer and waited for a call. Nothing! The lady on the other end of the phone had contacted an attorney after she received the flyer and was told not to talk to me again. I was trying to get her to let us come see the horse. Her 10-year-old child had been riding and showing the horse in horse shows. They seemed to have a real attachment to her and if it was our horse I found myself feeling very sorry for her. We needed to know if it was our horse and there was only one way to do that.

Being very persistent, I finally got in touch with her again and we talked more. I do not think it would be appropriate to repeat the conversation that took place but I will say there were tears shed on both parts. They didn't want to lose the horse and we needed to see if it was our horse.

I had called the authorities and the Tennessee State Cattle/Horse Livestock officer who was already working this case. He went to see the person that had sold the horse to this family in February. The officer called us late in the afternoon and asks us how soon we could get there. The horse trader had identified the horse in the flyer as the horse he sold to this family.

We grabbed a toothbrush, change of underwear and took off. It is the first time in our lives that a list was not left for Grandma, who took care of the kids, and clothes were not laid out for school, etc. We just told them that whatever they needed they would have to figure it out themselves this time.

We arrived in Athens, Tennessee around 10:30 that night. We met with the state officer and an officer from the sheriff's department. They had been to the home but did not see the horse, only a video sine the horse was in an undisclosed place. We were informed that if this was indeed our horse we needed to remove her immediately and take her home the next day.

We really had originally planned to let the family have some time with her to say good-bye and we would pick her up on Monday. At that point we still trusted the family.

One big problem - we did not have our truck and trailer. We had driven our car because we didn't have time to hitch the trailer, gas up and drive over the Smoky Mountains because it would delay our five-hour trip. While traveling we had a lot of time to think about everything that had transpired and realized we had possibly made a mistake. We checked into a motel around midnight for what was the longest night I can ever remember. Neither of us slept a wink!

We felt like our skin was crawling and pins were sticking us all over. We talked and changed TV channels all night. We gave new meaning to channel surfing. Would it be Idaho this time? We had been to see so many horses who were not. We had learned not to get our hopes up but this time it was different and we knew it. What if this was not our horse? Could we withstand the unbearable disappointment that we knew would follow? We could not truly let ourselves believe this was our horse until we saw her, yet we knew inside that it was. I guess we were trying to keep from totally self-destructing if it were not. We had mixed emotions in the worse way.

The next day didn't go as smoothly as we had envisioned. We had to identify Idaho from the video. We didn't travel to the place she was living as we had envisioned. We did not meet the family as we thought we would. The officers kept us in different rooms. We did not get the many questions answered that swirled through our heads. The time spent in the law enforcement facility was nothing like we had pictured.

We are very appreciative of the way the officers handled us. We could never say thank you enough for getting our horse back in the high charged emotional situation our morning turned into.

Back to the video... The most emotional time since the day she disappeared was in an officer's office looking at that video. When we saw her from across a show ring, both of us at the same time said, "That's her!!!!"

I just don't know how to explain that moment. All our hope. All our work. All our prayers. All the times we had dreamed of this day and imagined what it would be like and feel like. This was it! There she was in all of her glory on tape, alive and well. The emotions that had been inside all these months poured out of us in tears and sobs.

We watched Idaho move around the ring. We watched her turn her head in that old familiar way. The movement of her body as she racked around the ring, the way she held her head and tail, all were the same. We watched her turn her body sideways when she stopped, something Idaho always did.

Her color was lighter and you could hardly see her spot on the side. Even if this horse had been dyed black we would have still known her. We held each other and wept. The search was over. Still something inside us wouldn't completely believe it until we physically saw her.

That came later when the sheriff's department went and took Idaho out of her dwelling and led her by lead rope to a nearby church parking lot where we were waiting with other officers.

To see that head and tail held high coming down the road was the most beautiful sight I had seen in a long time. We just had to touch her all over. There was no doubt this horse was Idaho.

So many prayers were said by us, and many people, total strangers from around the world, for the safe return of our horse. We received letters of prayer daily. Who would have expected us to end up in a church parking lot when we regained custody of Idaho? A barn, a pasture, a sale barn would have been much more likely settings. Instead, a church steeple peered out to me in the background as I held our horse's head in my hands and listened to her familiar sounds. I felt that maybe being in this parking lot was not such a coincidence. It somehow seemed so fitting, for here in my hands, was the answer to many prayers.

The rest of the day was spent arranging transportation. The lieutenant arranged for a trailer to meet us at the church. Through the help of another man we were able to arrange transportation to Asheville, North Carolina. A friend who had trained Idaho and stabled her for us at times picked her up there and brought her home.

We knew from that first meeting that she knew us. We feel sure she recognized us because of the muzzling she did when she first saw us. She remained calm during the entire trip until we pulled into our yard. Idaho knew she was home! She danced around with excitement and it was all you could do to hold her to get her into the ring.

Harold, Casey on Idaho and Debi

She whinnied! She snorted! She talked! She pranced! What a sight to see even in the dim light at 9:00 PM. A little later we put her daughter in with her and they sniffed each other and talked a little. Back to normal. Her best grooming buddy was grooming with her over the fence shortly thereafter. The horse that has dominated the group quickly showed her dominance again... just like before.

Later that night I couldn't find Harold. I walked outside and found him in the riding ring talking to Idaho. I stood on the hill over the ring and felt such warmth as I observed them without them knowing. Wherever he went she followed. It was like they were stuck together... once again. I stood there for a long time.

We took her on our annual weekend mountain trip the next day with our horse club. Ironically, this trip in September of '97 was the last time my husband rode his trusty mount. One year later it was the first time he rode her again. We were so proud to have her with us.

She is in good shape. She is thinner than when she left but otherwise healthy. The family who had Idaho since February had taken good care of her. She had been completely body clipped and her spot was cut really close, almost gone. Most of her color appeared gray instead of brown. She still had good muscle tone.

That is a miracle also because they said she was skin and bones when they bought her. They called her Lucy after Lucille Ball. Her 10-year-old rider had the best summer ever upon her back winning many shows.

Upon returning from the mountain trail riding weekend we turned Idaho out with the rest of the horses and prepared for the usual chase and buck scene you see when a newcomer arrives. She remembered the short cut through the woods. The dominant mares paid her no attention. Her daughter and her buddy walked along side of her as she walked to a place in the pasture and started eating. No fanfare at all.

She remembers the trails we ride. Idaho knows where to go after riding around our neighborhood to get her saddle off. She went straight to the back door just like always.

As for the family who had our horse... We are very thankful this family found our horse and took her home. We are sorry that it turned out to be such a nightmare for them too. The parents had money and time tied up in Idaho. Their daughter lost her friend so quickly. She too loved the horse she called Lucy.

It was unfortunate for us all to have this thief march into our lives in September of '97. In the end everyone suffered but the thief, who is waiting for his day in court to get his hand slapped. Idaho, who lived her horrid adventure, suffered physically. Our family, who spent countless hours and dollars to find her, and the last owners who had their future dreams shattered, will probably never get over this.

Most people never hear of the number of horses stolen across the US, daily, weekly, or monthly. There are no available statistics that I know of. There is so little publicity about such a huge business in the horse industry. We hope to change that.

Few stolen horse stories have a happy ending. When you hear of a horse being stolen, instead of thinking like so many do, "That horse is gone. It will never be found," remember to never underestimate the power of one.

And keep in the back of your mind, Idaho knows she is home.

Some helpful links on Horse Theft

PA Horse Transport Legislation

Lost and Stolen Equines

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Debi Metcalfe, her family, and Idaho for sharing their experience with us. Congratulations!!!

For more information about stolen horses and how to prevent this tragedy, contact the Natural Horse office.

Note: As of the printing of this issue, the thief in this case, unfortunately, appears to be escaping a trial due to legal loopholes. Natural Horse Magazine will be following this case closely in hopes that more can be learned about how to bring criminals to justice.