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Horse Sale Scams Gone Wild

By Cindy Hale

Thursday, April 22, 2011

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The image of the shifty horse dealer is an enduring icon, given new life with Internet technology. Instead of operating out of a shantytown boarding stable, these wily purveyors of horse flesh have begun wheeling and dealing online, emboldened by the anonymity that comes with conducting commerce by computer. Fortunately, we finally caught one, and if she’s made to pay as a sort of message to other horse sale scammers, so be it.

Trina Kenney, 32, whose place of residence is less than two hours from me, has agreed to a plea deal that gives her 41 months in federal prison and requires her to pay $200,000 in restitution. Her admission of guilt on one count of mail fraud is the result of an undercover investigation by FBI and US Postal agents. They acted as online buyers of a Friesian mare that Kenney sold to them for $5,000 yet never produced. But this was just one example of Kenney’s handiwork. In court she admitted she’d ripped off over 60 buyers from the U.S. and Canada from 2004-2008. Her modus operandi was to post ads on sites we all browse through, like dreamhorse.com and horsetopia.com, and entice buyers with money-back guarantees (which of course were useless). Her lowball prices were usually paired with a need to sell the horse quickly, and if buyers balked she’d invoke the old standby that there were other interested parties, so they needed to decide hastily. Once a cash payment was sent, then the horse would arrive. Invariably it would be: dyed with hair color; lame due to a lack of hoof care; ill due to an untreated case of strangles; unruly and unsafe once a tranquilizer wore off; an entirely different horse than the one purchased. Sometimes no horse would arrive at all.

Thanks to the multitude of equestrian message boards and the power of mass emailings, Kenney’s notoriety quickly spread. Undeterred, she developed aliases and created several phantom farm names, and went back to work. I can’t help but think that when federal agents got involved they were amazed at the chutzpah of this 32-year-old woman. She was gleefully ripping off horse lovers with wild abandon.

Yet I have to point out that part of my enduring fascination with this story is the incredible gullibility (dare I say stupidity?) on the part of her victims. I’m sure they were looking for the horse of their dreams and they thought they’d found a good deal. Maybe the type or quality of horse they sought didn’t exist in their region of the country, and buying long-distance via their laptop seemed like a prudent choice. But buying a horse—especially one for riding purposes—based on (misrepresented) ad text and a couple of snapshots (copied and pasted from someone else’s ad or website) is asking to be disappointed. And also asking to be relieved of several thousand dollars. I mean, this isn’t eBay, folks. We’re not talking about firing up PayPal to buy a slightly used Brighton purse or a set of Seinfeld DVDs. It’s a horse. Either you have a connection with the animal, based on some face-to-face interaction, or you don’t. And either you get a good vibe from the seller or you get the creeps and leave. I just can’t get past the idea that some people gladly forked over a considerable amount of money to a complete stranger just because she’d mastered the art of hucksterism.

So here I go again: Buying a horse, and paying for its continued upkeep, is an expensive proposition. Few things are more heartbreaking than realizing the horse of your dreams is more like a nightmare that you now have to unload. Please take your time before you plunk down money on a horse, especially if you’re trolling those online sale sites. Don’t feel rushed. Don’t be swayed by money-back guarantees, because they’re generally worthless. Visit the horse in person, even if that requires a road trip and dipping into your horse budget. Then make sure any registration papers match the horse you’re looking at. Finally, consider having a vet evaluate the horse to make sure it’s not ill, lame or drugged.

I’ve heard from several shoppers who have bought wonderful horses online, and I know there are indeed plenty of reputable sellers, including breeders, trainers and agents, who market their stock primarily through websites. But you have to realize that the horse world, unfortunately, has been rife with scammers and grifters for eons. They’re out there, just waiting to take your money. And it’s going to be a while before the FBI drags them all to the hoosegow.

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CINDY HALE    HORSE CHANNEL, CA

4/28/2011 10:54:31 AM

THANKS FOR THE COMMENTS!

I HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT BUYING A HORSE ONLINE, BUT AT THE LAST MINUTE I ALWAYS BACKED OUT. IT'S TOO EASY TO DOCTOR A VIDEO OR NEGLECT TO MENTION THINGS THAT I MIGHT DISCOVER IN PERSON, LIKE THAT THE HORSE WON'T CROSS WATER OR THAT IT COMPULSIVELY EATS HUMAN FLESH.

I FIGURE IF I CAN'T FACTOR IN THE COST OF A VISIT, THEN IT'S NOT MEANT FOR ME TO HAVE THAT PARTICULAR HORSE.

Cami    Bluffdale, UT

4/25/2011 9:31:57 PM

I guess I am just lucky, because I bought a horse off of dreamhorse.com, without seeing the horse in person. I did have him vetted by a vet in their town, but what if the vet was in on the scam? The gelding turned out to be even better, nicer, smarter than advertised. In retrospect, after hearing the horror stories, I was probably crazy to do it, but it worked out great for me. Would I do it again? Maybe from the same sellers!

Anna    Los Angeles, CA

4/25/2011 6:37:02 PM

When I hear about things like this, I often really wonder about the would-be buyers, too.

Maybe to them, a horse **is** just like a car or a toy. Maybe they figure if the toy doesn't work out, they can just get a new one. Not a mindset I have or understand, but it takes all kinds.

My other thought is that these kinds of buyers may have been looking to get the proverbial "something for nothing" (or close to it) and may have been thinking only of what a great deal they were getting (while perhaps fooling the seller, who they mistakenly thought didn't know what she had).

Don't get me wrong: What this woman did was horrible. But as P.T. Barnum famously said (or at least is was famously credited to him), "There's a sucker born every minute." Maybe two of them in the horse world.

Sasha    Ojai, CA

4/23/2011 10:05:07 AM

There are also saddle scams. One lady finally got caught after she sold an expensive dressage saddle several times for over $3,000.

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