An equine therapist stood in the red barn in western North Carolina, looking into empty stalls that had been occupied only 12 hours earlier.
Sensibilities were shocked. The horses were gone.
Three horses, including two American Miniatures, went missing from the Crossnore School & Children’s Home on Saturday night – with little trace of a break-in or a trail to track.
A formal announcement wasn’t made for fear of mass perturbation. Faculty and the few students who would have routinely tended to the animals spent their Sunday in dismay. Twenty-four hours passed.
Then Monday the horses mysteriously reappeared, standing in their stalls, gazing out for affection.
The mystery unfolded at Crossnore’s main campus in Avery County under the shadow of the neighboring Grandfather Mountain.
“It was a bizarre, bizarre occurrence,” said CEO Brett Loftis.
Crossnore, which provides school-based and outpatient therapy, has two campuses, the second in Winston-Salem. The children at Crossnore, who live in 19 campus cottages with cottage parents, are in foster care.
“Group foster care offers the ability to care for sibling groups,” said spokeswoman Holly Barrett. “Single-family foster homes can only take so many kids.”
The miniature horses are therapy horses for the children, who lead them about the grounds. Through time and acquaintance the horses grow to trust the children.
Kids brush the horses’ hair, comb manes and prevent knots tangling in long tails.
“In turn, the children learn to trust the horses,” Loftis said.
“A child will tell a horse things that they would never tell another adult,” he added.
The Avery County Sheriff’s Office was alerted as soon as the horses were found to be missing.
No fences were broken, no locks smashed. Five hundred yards of woods spans between the barn and the nearest Crossnore lodging.
The barn is locked at night. But the lock is a small one, placed less for preventing theft and more for keeping night-rambling children out of the stables.
Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye thinks a barn latch most likely was unscrewed, removed and refastened back into place by the thieves once the horses were rustled out into the night.
“That’s the only way we can surmise the crime was perpetrated,” Frye said.
Loftis said miniature horses get stolen more often than larger ones because they can be sold as pets for “quick money.”
Gentleness is trained into the therapy horses and sweet natures are essential for their work. “They will follow anybody anywhere, if they have food,” Loftis said.
The missing third horse was an 18-year-old named Goldie, Loftis said.
But a fourth horse in the Crossnore barn escaped capture. Classy is an American Paint Horse whose pinto-patterned coat closely resembles a Palomino’s golden colorings. She doesn’t work with the children.
“Goldie won’t go anywhere with anybody, and can be frustrating,” Loftis said. Goldie is in her prime, strong, and she spent Saturday night at home.
Equine therapist Katherine Howell Jones put the word out to the local horse community about the theft.
“She contacted the people who would be buying or selling horses in the area. It’s a small community,” Loftis said. “She told them to be on the lookout.”
Word spread on social media.
“Everybody was shocked,” Loftis said. “It’s never crossed our minds that anyone would steal a horse from a children’s home.”
The children saddened by the horses’ disappearance were overjoyed upon their return.
“They got so much social media presence so quickly,” Frye said, “that we believe that’s why they were returned.”
That the rustlers got spooked, is the leading theory for the creatures’ return.