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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


Montana Horsehair Thieves 

Steal Tails in the Night

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer


December 2010 Issue  

     Recently, bold thieves slipped into several Montana pastures and paddocks and cut the hair from at least six horses’ tails and one horse’s mane. The horses were not harmed other than losing their main insect deterrents, but the owners are understandably upset.

     Patty Sayler, a schoolteacher and rancher who lives outside of Butte , Montana , was “totally stumped – just baffled,” when she noticed on September 18, 2010, that one of her horses, a 5-to 6-year-old bay mare, had had her tail hair chopped off short in two cuts. The mare was with four other horses and a pony in a rugged, 200-acre pasture. Sayler says that her horses are not easy to catch, and that they are in with cows that can be intimidating because they are so friendly and pushy. She guesses that the only way the horses would have been at all approachable might have been with grain.

     Sayler didn’t report the incident until she read in the newspaper about other western Montana horses having their tail hair cut off.

     Sandy O’Rourke, of Three Forks, Montana , says that on October 17 she found her horse, Luke, a big, flea-bitten gray gelding, and her friend’s leopard Appaloosa, Shasta, both with their tail hair cut off. Another horse had part of his mane cut. They were in a group of 16 horses, were gentle enough to easily approach, and had white tails. She says that Luke’s tail was really long and full, but Shasta, “a typical Appy, had a thinner, shorter tail.”

     O’Rourke says that the horses are checked at least once or twice a day and are right on the edge of town.

     O’Rourke later had contact with two other people who had their horses’ tail hair cut off; one recently in the Clarkston area, 20 miles north of Three Forks, and one last summer in Great Falls.

     Eighty-five miles away, and a month earlier, Bob and Connie Riley, of Dillon , Montana , discovered their gentle Morgan, Sam, with his thick, dark-chestnut tail trimmed of about four feet of hair.


Sam, Bob and Connie Riley’s Morgan, with his shortened tail. Photo courtesy Bob Riley.


     Another night, the thieves tried again with another of their horses – this time unsuccessfully. The Rileys found their uneasy mare in a corral, tail intact. Bob explains that it appeared she had been chased and had knocked down some construction scaffolding, which had then been moved to another part of the corral in an effort to pin her in. Bob says he and Connie take in rescue horses and that this mare is still too wild to be easily approached.

     Bob says that there are a lot of horses near where he keeps his (off the road at the back of his property) and that he has seen suspicious people on the road who he believes might be the hair thieves. He gave their descriptions and license numbers to the sheriff’s office, but as they were not caught in the act, nothing could legally be done.


     Horsehair sells on the internet for about $20 to $350 per pound depending upon quality, color and length. According to both O’Rourke and Riley, who began their own independent investigations into horsehair theft, horsehair is often pawned or bartered for drugs or alcohol. The leading uses for horsehair in the West are for “hitched” or braided horsehair tack, hat bands, belts and jewelry, which can sell for up to thousands of dollars.

     Traditionally, inmates of prisons in the western U.S. learned horsehair hitching and braiding, and today’s inmates still practice the craft to sell jewelry and other horsehair products for a small income. O’Rourke spoke to a Montana State Prison official at nearby Deer Lodge and was told that friends and family generally supply the prisoners with horsehair. Riley spoke to saddle shops that sell horsehair and was told the same.

Horsehair hitched belt made by a prison inmate and sold through the Old Prison Museums Gift Shop in Deer Lodge, Montana .


     Sadly, stealing a horse’s tail hair is not uncommon as a search on the internet shows that thefts have been reported over the last couple of years wherever there are horses across the U.S.

     Due to the difficulty of putting a monetary value on a horse’s tail, the crime is usually considered misdemeanor animal cruelty, criminal mischief and/or trespassing, and is not taken too seriously by busy law enforcement personnel.

     O’Rourke says that she met indifference at first when she called her sheriff’s department, but when she asked how the deputy might feel if someone came into his yard and shaved his dog, she got a better response. She says that a bag of horsehair was recently found beside a road and turned into the sheriff’s department, probably due to the recent publicity.

     O’Rourke says that she and her Appaloosa owner friend are going to put up an infrared, motion-sensor camera, such as one used to track game at night, to deter or catch any further thieves.

     Bob Riley says that his sheriff’s department took his report seriously, but has been able to do little so far.

     “This is an invasion of privacy. You just don’t screw with somebody’s horses,” declares Bob.

     The Rileys are upset enough to offer a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of persons involved in the theft.


     To report information on the theft of the Rileys horse’s tail, contact Bob at, or the Beaverhead County Sheriff’s Office at 406-683-3701.

     To report information on the O’Rourke horses, contact the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office at 406-582-2100.

Horsehair uses

     Horsehair has had many other uses for thousands of years, including the beautiful Scottish “sporran,” worn with a kilt, fly whisks, violin bow strings, and shaving, vacuum cleaner, shoe-buffing, cleaning, paint and calligraphy brushes. Horse tails are also used as an extension for a horse’s natural tail in Western Pleasure and Dressage classes in the show ring.

Scottish “sporran,” which adorns a kilt worn by a bagpiper or drummer, is often made from horsehair


     Past uses for horsehair include mixing it into plaster for interior wall strength, horsehair padding for furniture, wigs such as George Washington wore, and stiffening in woven material (such as crinoline).

     In Scandinavia , horsehair is traditionally spun into ropes and fishing lines, and woven into milk sieves, clothing and rugs. In France and Great Britain weavers use it in upholstery fabric.

     China manufactures fine brushes, lining cloth for expensive clothing, and industrial fabric for furniture, cars, handbags and cases from horsehair. The fabric doesn’t shrink, and is smooth, stiff and breathable.

     Most commercial horsehair comes from China , Canada , Australia and Venezuela , from both slaughtered and live horses.


Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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