Finding my stolen horses in Lesotho

By October 7, 2019Photography

Bring My Horses Home.

This is a story of how my two stolen horses were rescued and recovered from deep inside of Lesotho.  It’s a chapter in my life which highlighted my strengths and reminded me of the deep connection I once shared with my equine companion; A stubborn, yet gentle chestnut pony named Ginger.

Growing up together.

I remember like it was yesterday.  As a little adventurous girl waking up before dawn; the farm, nestled in a valley still asleep.  I would sneak out with a slice of bread and a bridle to fetch my pony, Ginger.
In the cold morning air we would be off on a brisk trot down the valley and finally up the hill where the sun was waving its good morning rays to the waking farm.

Ginger was a gift from my uncle on my 9th birthday in 1996.  A young, confused little 3yo colt arrived on the farm.  At 14hh, much smaller than the working horses, his wide eyes and bushy red mane didn’t exactly steal my 9yo heart immediately. He had a choppy stride, not the most comfortable seat, a stubborn streak, but a big and willing heart.

As a young steed, Ginger was nothing but trouble.  A master at opening any gate, he often had the whole farm up in arms at midnight, when he thought it the best time to visit the other horses for a rendezvous under the starlight. He was a handful to say the least.

With patience Ginger grew up with me.  Tolerating getting his hair braided, tangled, washed and groomed.  Never a horse who really cared much for rubs and hugs, but always excited when taken for a swim in the dam.  His love for water has always been our most favourite bonding time after a long ride along the farm, exploring every inch of every hectar.

In my high school years, I was introduced to Arabian horses and after some hectic saving I bought my first registered Arab mare. I registered with the SA Arab Horse Society and had a small Arab breeding stud for a few years with another mare and stallion on lease. After finishing University in Stellenbosch I secured a job abroad, so I decided it best to sell the Arabs, but I kept the last filly born in 2010. This little filly, named after her Grandmother, was Anisa. She was kept both for sentimental reasons as well as her beautiful, curious temperament.

By this time Ginger was way in to his teenage years and was the grumpy old grandpa gelding used to wean the babies. He was good at teaching the foals manners without hurting them as well as keep them company. In hindsight this means he filled a parental role to Anisa and has been her only companion after her mother and siblings were sold. The two horses are therefore quite close.

The Theft.

I currently spend the majority of my days in Cape Town, where I am based as a professional photographer.  With Ginger now being retired at 26 years of age, I visit him on the farm several times a year since my career makes my schedule quite flexible.
It was coincidence that I was in the Free State to cover 3 weddings when I also found out that I had to get unexpected hip surgery scheduled for 26 June. My stay in the Free State was therefore prolonged and I see now how this was a blessing in disguise.

On the morning of 23 June, the groom who is the horses’ primary care giver since my parents moved to Bloemfontein due to safety concerns on the farm, gave us a call to report the horses missing. He had tracked their hoof prints along with 5 sets of human shoeprints for 10km before losing them when they crossed a steel bridge over the Caledon river and disappeared on a tar road. He walked all the way to town, which is on the border of Lesotho, to report the matter to the police who did not give him much guidance or help. As soon as we got the news we drove straight to the police station.

Frustration started to build when it took 4 separate visits to the Police station before they finally agreed to let us open an official case. Police officials only visited the farm more than 24 hours later and disregarded important and crucial evidence left on the scene.  My trust and faith in the officials’ competence started to dwindle due to the way the matter was handled.  For some reason they refused to question everybody present on the farm during the event of the theft and a key suspect whose footprints were a 100% match to those found alongside the horses’ hoofprints, were merely let go since he was underage.

I was however determined to locate my horses so I made a Facebook post with photos of my two horses offering a reward for their safe return. It wasn’t long until their photos went viral and people from all over the country started sharing the mission to find them.  Trying out every possible way to locate my horses, I asked for people with drones to please come and help us search from the air.

The next day two people with drones came out to help search the surrounding area from the sky. Due to the fact that my confidence in the  authorities’ competence have dwindled, I decided to hire a private investigator and I started a Facebook page for the two horses which spread like a wild fire. We searched the area from the sky for hours without success. We approached the local sheep and cattle herders in the surrounding mountains and in my broken, limited Sesotho skills asked them if they had seen the horses? One of the sheep herders was busy trying to rescue one of his newborn lambs who wouldn’t suckle and as I tried to help him and tell him about the horses, he recognized me from many years ago as a child, when I bought a young filly from his son and thus was eager to help us out. I got briefly excited when he confirmed seeing two horses matching the description of my two ponies, but my heart sank when he confirmed that the horses were taken in the direction of Lesotho. It is common knowledge that once an animal crosses in to the vast, mountainous country of Lesotho, it is almost impossible to ever find them again.

With a heavy heart we drove to the Tsupane Boarder Post to spread the word about the horses.  There I met a kind and willing Police Officer from Lesotho.  He could hear in my voice how dear the horses were to me and promised me that he would do everything in his power to help bring the horses home.  Over the next few days he kept reassuring me via Facebook Message that his informants were out searching every day.

Knowing that my surgery lay ahead and that I was physically limited to go and search for my two beloved horses, the worry was growing strong and fast inside of me. This is when I knew I had to get a private investigator on the case both in South Africa as well as in Lesotho.

People from all over the country sent messages of support, offering help, searching with me and keeping an eye out.  Many times this would cause heartache when people who meant well, sent photos of dead, starving or abused horses to me, asking if it wasn’t possibly my ponies.  Knowing that they were only trying to help, I knew that I had to face the reality that there was in fact a chance that my ponies might end up that way. With the help of a Sesotho speaking childhood friend who grew up on the farm with me, we translated a Facebook Sponsored post in to Sesotho and targeted the nearby Lesotho towns and surrounding areas to spread the word.
The post gathered many comments and shares and among them there were countless racially charged comments from local Lesotho people, however there were many more who saw my plight to find my two ponies and who were willing and wanting to help.

3 weeks went by with not much news; many leads that ended cold or were false.  The private investigator in South Africa visited the farm and questioned everyone present the day of the theft.  They uncovered many leads which the Stock Theft Officers didn’t really care to look at and my serious determination to solve the case started to sink in to everyone present.  People started realizing that I was not planning on giving up and that I will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth.
I had my surgery in the meantime but it was so far from my mind that I did not even notice most of the pain or discomfort.  The hours before the surgery I lay in my hospital bed talking to the private investigator and following up with the police.  I did not have time to even think of the discomfort – I just wanted my horses home.

I wished there was a way I could tell my two ponies that their mom was coming for them. That they should stay strong. I was so worried about Ginger, who by now is 26yo and has lived his whole life showered with love on the farm. My heart was broken knowing he was being ridden with his arthritis joints after being retired for years already. I was weeping for Anisa who I know was probably separated from Ginger shortly after being stolen and that she would become anxious without him. I was sad knowing they were starving with the limited access to food and water in the rough, mountain terrains of Lesotho during its harsh winters. I wished the thieves could have at least taken Ginger’s arthritis supplements with him to ease the pain.

Landi Groenewald Photography

Photo by: Johann Latsky

14 days without news finally got to me and for a brief moment I thought I lost hope.  I considered accepting the fate of my two horses and moving on. But all the thoughts of their well being in harsh Lesotho kept motivating me to never give up. After 23 years of loyal devotion to his little rider, I could not give up on Ginger in his old day. It was my duty to do everything to find him after he kept me safe for so many years.  Every day I kept following up and calling around to find out anything new.  The Private Investigator from Lesotho drove to Bloemfontein to come see me and discussed possible options and ways to help the case. Informants were also working alongside the Lesotho Police to track down the trial of the horses.

On 11 July I received a phone call… the call I’d been waiting on for days. Ginger had been found! I received a photo from the Tsupane Police Officer confirming it. I couldn’t believe it! I burst out in to tears knowing that it should be so much easier to find and track Anisa as well. Half an hour or more later, I received the second message from the same officer with a photo of Anisa found in Ribaneng – a small village in Lesotho. Both horses found on the same day! They have travelled over 200km on foot within 19 days.

I posted the happy news on Facebook and asked for people with a horsebox and loading knowledge for assistance.  Lots of people following the story offered their assistance and help.  I however received a phone call from the South African Stock Theft Unit telling me to remove the question asking for help since they will be the officials loading the animals.

Landi Groenewald Photography

Photo by: Johann Latsky

The Rescue.

The next morning, we left Bloemfontein bright and early to go fetch my ponies. A videographer friend who initially helped to search from the air with his drone, came along to document the happy reunion so that all of South Africa who has been following the story, could share in the moment we were reunited.

But the day did not go by without its difficulties.
Since I was on crutches following my surgery, I was unable to drive so my father took the role as driver.  Being required to identify my horses we were requested to accompany the SA Stock Theft Officials at the loading.  When we entered through Van Rooyens boarder post, both the videographer and I were only stamped on the South African side at departures, and not stamped at the Lesotho immigration office as entering.  We told the Stock Theft officer that we are required to stamp in to the country, to which he told us that as long as we are with him, we are safe.  We explained that it really is crucial for our passport stamp history to reflect accurate travel itinerary, but we were not stamped in to Lesotho which would lead to further complications later that same day.

When we arrived at Matelile police station where the horses were taken to the previous day, I saw both horses together. Tied up separately a few meters apart. They had no access to water or food. I whistled and both horses’ heads shot around and neighed. I was on crutches, so I first hopped over to Ginger. Anisa, being a feisty Arab is prone to being skittish so I didn’t want to scare her by approaching her first while on crutches. While I was standing at Ginger and putting his halter on, Anisa kept calling and giving little nickers. I then slowly hopped on over to her. Gave her a small bit of bread (their favourite treat) and let my father and an officer help with taking off the halter she had on and replacing it with her own. Being on crutches made it hard to handle the horses.

 The Loading.

Ginger was unsure of the horsebox, even though he has been in one a few times before in his life. The excited shouts and laughter from the local people about the events made him nervous and unsure. Being on crutches it was hard for me to led him in and reassure him as he kept resisting. Luckily, he is such a bombproof gentleman that with a bit of pushing and guidance from behind, he was in the box.

Anisa’s loading process was however tragic. I was not allowed to load her due to my own injuries, but my advice on how to load her and the methods that should be followed to calm her down, were all ignored. Arabian horses in general, although very attention friendly, are very hot and skittish in temperament. Sudden movements or sounds can spook them dramatically and I kept warning the officers and helpers about this. My worst loading fear came true when I saw her jump up in the air and straight in to the door latch. A deep cut ripped in to her chest and blood started flowing rapidly. I knew I had to stay calm but it was very hard and naturally I flipped after witnessing the very thing I kept warning against.  The SA Stock Theft Officers told me, with finger pointing in my face, that they will no longer “help” me to load the horses and that I should do it on my own.  This after I initially organized my own loading team and trailer with skilled horse owners and was told by officials that it will not be allowed.  I felt powerless to my bone from the frustration and anger that was building, since these very officials described their duty to do their jobs as “helping” me and doing me a “favour” after I was refused to bring in my own loading team and my advice on how to load my own horse was ignored which resulted in serious injury.

I left my crutches and took control of my horse. With my painful operated leg I led her away from the box to try and calm her down. I gave the lead rope to the videographer who came with us to capture the reunion and ran to my car where I had an ice-cold 5L bottle of water. I quickly rinsed the wound with the hopes that the cold water would slow down the bleeding.

The small miracle.

The whole day my phone wouldn’t connect to roaming services in Lesotho and I was previously unable to make any phone calls, whatsapp messages or connect to data, but when I tried again at that moment, it finally connected by itself which allowed me to make a phone call to our vet in a panic. She sadly informed me that she is not allowed to enter and work in Lesotho as a vet since it is another country. She was also not in the area that day.

I started panicking because the bleeding wouldn’t stop. The vet said she organized ACP calming syrup and a painkilling injection at Ladybrand Animal Clinic. Being the only other person with a passport and drivers licence, the videographer had to stop filming and jumped in to my car to make the long journey to Ladybrand, going via Maseru Boarder post which took hours.  The videographer struggled to get through the boarder post because he did not have a stamp entering in to Lesotho from that morning.  He got threatened to be arrested, have his video equipment confiscated and being fined for being in the country illegally. After much hassle, he finally managed to convince the officials at the boarder post that this was an emergency and they let him through.
The police officers decided to go on lunch for the entire time the videographer was away while we waited on the medical supplies.  This meant it was only my dad and I left with a dehydrated, old horse boxed since early morning and an agitated, injured hot blooded Arabian. We ourselves had no access to drinking water, food, lavatories or shade and my newly operated leg was starting to throb from having to manage an injured horse without my crutches. This was possibly the longest 4 and a half hours of my life, waiting for the medical supplies.

In that time I managed to calm Anisa down. I sat on the ramp of the box and just stayed there with her, talking to her. I moved in to the box gradually little by little every 10 – 15min. She followed me calmly in to the box several times, but as soon as her hind legs would step in, she would reverse out again. At one point I finally had her in, but there was nobody there to close the ramp behind her since all the officers were away and my dad could not possibly close the ramp quickly enough by himself. I felt defeated knowing she had to be evacuated immediately for medical care, but knowing we were stuck there with no help.

With my phone battery dying rapidly whenever connected to roaming, which also depleted my data bundle at a rapid pace, I connected to Facebook to update everyone waiting in anticipation.  I asked for help loading.  I made sure to mention the exact location, the situation and the nature of the injuries as well as the crucial fact that my battery is dying and that people should please only contact me if they can physically come and help.
With the great amount of people following the story, it created a bit of a dilemma.  I received 100’s of whatsapps (depleting my data and battery further) asking unnecessary questions like “Where are you”  or “You need to evacuate the horse.” or  “Apply honey to the wound”  The majority of the messages and calls received were completely unhelpful since I stated the exact location in the Facebook post already and being in the middle of nowhere in Lesotho I had no access to the miracle remedies people were so eager to give advice on.  I knew that these were all people just trying to help, but in the heat of the moment they caused so much damage since the people who were actually able to come and physically help us, were unable to get a hold of me since my phone died due to all the unnecessary calls and messages.

The videographer finally returned after 4.5 hours of driving as fast as he legally can. The officers only arrived back shortly before the videographer did, after I made a frantic phone call to the Provincial Head of Stock Theft in Bloemfontein. After we administered the emergency medication, Anisa climbed in to the box like an angel!

And finally… we were on our way back home!

The horses traveled over 200km on foot.

The stolen horses traveled over 200km on foot.

Back Home.

We arrived on the farm way after sunset at around 19:30. We unloaded the horses. The vet could not perform any surgery at that time of night due to limited light and the amount of stress already sustained by both horses. We were so grateful that it was a rather cold night with frost which helped to stop the bleeding.

The next morning before sunrise I went straight to their paddock and my heart just melted in to another puddle of tears when both horses greeted me with happy nickers and whinnies.

The vet arrived bright and early and got to work immediately. She first gave Ginger an overall check up, listening to his heart beat and intestinal sounds. He was severely dehydrated and malnourished and had a urinary tract infection, but the vet was not too worried about his condition and was confident that he would make a full recovery.

She then started to mend Anisa’s wound. Due to the wound already being more than 12 hours old, some of the skin already died. But she did her best to save as much of it and stitched the wound shut from deep inside to out.

We got a massive donation of 12 bales of lucern and 12 bales of teff from our neighbour and both horses were slowly put on a recovery diet. Anisa bounced back to her old condition in no time. Ginger’s condition started picking up as well, but at a much slower pace. After 10 days he was slowly introduced to concentrates again and his joint supplements were reintroduced to his diet after 2 weeks in order to not put too much stress on his kidneys in the beginning.

Both horses are now safe, microchipped and have made a tremendous recovery. They are under 24-hour surveillance while their stall door will be fitted with an alarm and camera to guard them at night.

At Ginger’s old age, it was decided that he will be happier to stay on the farm where he grew up, instead of being moved down to Cape Town where I live now. The move to a new climate and environment and smaller paddocks would be extremely stressful on his body and mind.  We therefore decided to increase the security on the farm rather than move him.

Anisa has gotten her African Horse Sickness Vaccinations and is ready to apply for a movement permit and travel passport, however we are not making any hasty decisions since we would hate to separate the two horses from each other.  We would therefore rather try to prevent the events from repeating themselves by putting other security measures in place instead of disrupting their lives with more traveling.

Perpetrators Unknown.

I have royally irritated the SA Stock Theft officers that were on the case, due to the fact that I have reported the initial way the case was handled, as well as the numerous errors that were unnecessarily made, to senior members of the force. As a result, they have refused to give me any information on exactly who has been arrested.  To this day I still do not know who stole my horses or how they knew about them.  I do not know how or exactly by whom they were found, although I do know that it was not by the SA Stock Theft unit or their informants, but rather the kind and helpful Lesotho Police Officer from the border post who promised me on that first day that he and his informants will do everything in their power to locate the horses.  Due to the fact that it is a cross border case and because SA Stock Theft is keeping their lips sealed on how my horses were stolen or found, the Lesotho officer has not been able to give me any information pertaining to the details of the recovery.
As a result, I have not been able to pay out the reward since I have not received this information and am not prepared to hand over the reward to SA Police officials.

I was informed on 07 October 2019 by SA Stock Theft that a trial will take place on 12 November 2019 in Wepener Magistrate’s Court.

I would like to thank every single person who followed their story and who prayed and wished for their safe return. I truly believe that the universe listened and brought them home after hearing a whole country’s prayers for their safe return.  Everyone who contributed to the search, rescue and recovery in any way – I know that somewhere in life, the favour would be returned to you.  May you all be blessed and your pets and animals live long happy lives.

Massive thanks to Carl Viloria from The Spiffy Chap, for helping to search from the air with his drone and documenting the entire rescue operation and compiling it in a very professional diplomatic manner.  Without you coming along that day, I’m not sure what we would have done without someone being able to drive all the way to the nearest vet for medical assistance. Thank you!

Daniel Polaki

The Private Detective from Lesotho was also one of the kindest most genuine people I got to meet during this entire situation.  Always being calm and rational.  Always thinking about new solutions.  I truly met a great friend.

 

Onwards and Upwards!

I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be back in the saddle again.  I have my whole career to be thankful for because of my old Ginger pony.  Read more about how my love for my equines pushed me in to a career as photographer by clicking here.

And lastly: Such a big thank you from the bottom of my heart to Jacki Bruniquel who came all the way out to the farm and spent 3 wonderful days documenting the bittersweet images a few weeks after the recovery.  Ginger is still struggling to gain weight again at his old age, but slowly and surely we’ll get there again.

Horse Portraits by Jacki Bruniquel

Photos by: Jacki Bruniquel

 

 

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