Toronto·CBC Investigates

Ontario woman searching for missing mare after couple charged for allegedly selling her horses

A Collingwood, Ont., woman is searching for her missing mare after a couple who leased her two horses were charged with fraud and theft for allegedly selling the horses without her knowledge.

Rachael Bakker tracked down one horse and sold her truck to buy him back

Rachael Bakker leased her horses out last year when she was sick, but the leasee eventually stopped returning her texts. Her horses had disappeared. She has managed to find Action, her 13-year-old gelding, but Olivia, her 19-year-old mare, is still missing. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

A Collingwood, Ont., woman is searching for her missing mare after a couple who leased her two horses were charged with fraud and theft for allegedly selling them without her knowledge.

Rachael Bakker decided to lease out her two horses early last year for a bit of financial help while she was sick and couldn't work. In January 2018, she signed a one-year contract with a Peterborough-area woman, Janice Hollett-Taylor, to lease the horses for clients who wanted to use them for riding and lessons. 

"It's very normal in the industry," said Bakker. "That's why it's so violating when a horse is stolen off a lease, because there are people that want to be able to lease their horses, and now they're feeling that they can't because they can't trust people."

In text messages with Bakker, Hollett-Taylor agreed to send regular updates and photos of the two horses since Bakker couldn't go visit them while she was sick. At first Bakker said she received the updates. But eventually, they stopped.

"I tried contacting the lady to find out if they were OK," Bakker told CBC News. "She just fell off the radar."

Horses go missing

After the lease was up early this year, Bakker and Ontario Provincial Police officers visited the farm where her horses — Action, a 13-year-old gelding, and Olivia, a 19-year-old mare — were supposed to be. But the horses were gone.

Initially, Bakker said, police told her the situation was a civil matter because legally horses are considered property, and she had no evidence of Hollett-Taylor's intent to sell the animals.

That changed when Bakker went back to police with evidence she got from the person she says bought the gelding from Hollett-Taylor.

Despite the criminal charges that followed, the experience has Bakker calling for tighter regulations in Canada's equine industry. She also wants the government to consider whether sentient property such as horses and dogs should be considered differently under the law than items like TVs and cars.

Bakker says she knows her horse Action had been starved because she noticed a 'massive' crack in his hoof after they were reunited. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

"I don't want money. I want my animals back," said Bakker. "There's got to be an easier way to be able to deal with these types of personalities that are out there manipulating and exploiting people and animals."

In the absence of an "easier way," Bakker set out to find her horses with the help of Ontario's equine community on Facebook and eventually got word from a woman who thought she had Action. 

"He went through two owners after he was stolen," Bakker said. "That's how fast these horses can go missing and go through all these different auctions."

'They were starved'

Bakker had to sell her truck so she could buy her own horse back in late May — and when she did, she noticed Action had "a massive crack in his hoof."

"They were starved," said Bakker. "Horses, when they go through severe dietary changes, it reflects in their hooves."

After getting Action back, Bakker went to police with new evidence she said she obtained from the person who bought the gelding from Hollett-Taylor.

Bakker tracked down Action through Facebook, but is still searching for her mare Olivia, pictured. (Submitted by Rachael Bakker)

Late last month, OPP charged both Hollett-Taylor and her husband, Brenden Taylor, with two counts of fraud over $5,000, theft under $5,000, and cause death or injury to an animal or bird, fail to provide suitable/adequate food, water, care, shelter in connection to the case.

None of the charges have been proven in court.

"I can definitely sleep better at night," Bakker said after hearing the news. "It's nice to know that everything is kind of coming together. You know, behaviours are hopefully being stopped at this point."

CBC News reached out to Hollett-Taylor by phone, email and on Facebook but did not receive a response.

She and her husband are set to appear in court Aug. 15 in Peterborough.

Bakker still doesn't know what happened to her other horse, Olivia. And she's not the only one who's worried about the missing mare. 

Childhood friend told horses 'were rescued'

Dylan Cowls had been friends with Hollett-Taylor since they were kids. He said he paid roughly $20,000 to take care of Action and Olivia after she offered to give him the mare for free and co-own the gelding with her early last year.

"She would say that the horses were rescued," Cowls said. "I was like, 'Cool, I'll rescue these horses, I'll give them a good home.'"

Dylan Cowls, left, said his childhood friend Janice Hollett-Taylor, right, told him Action was a rescue and that he could co-own the gelding with her for free. (Submitted by Dylan Cowls)

Cowls said he transferred Hollett-Taylor money for vet bills and to enter Action into some races. He said he eventually stopped paying her last summer when she wouldn't give him receipts.

Soon after, he said, Hollett-Taylor claimed the horses were hers when his parents went to collect his riding equipment and to tell her they'd found a new home for the horses.

At that point, Cowls said his former friend blocked him from contacting her. He hasn't heard from her since.

"I felt taken advantage of," said Cowls. "I do hope [Olivia's] out there still. I do hope she comes home."

Cowls said he paid roughly $20,000 toward vet bills and race entry fees for Action and Olivia in the first eight months of 2018. (Dylan Cowls)

Bakker and Cowls are now in touch, and he's looking forward to visiting Action later this month.

"I'm going to bring him a watermelon. It's his favourite thing," Cowls said.

Do homework when leasing horses: expert

Without stricter laws or regulations in the equine industry, one horse industry expert said owners need to do their homework before they agree to lease out their horses.

"Know who it is that may be taking the horse on," said Gayle Ecker, director of Equine Guelph, a nonprofit at the University of Guelph that serves the horse industry. "Are they someone who will put welfare at the top of the list and care for the horse?"

Ecker said most welfare issues arise when people underestimate everything they need to know and do to take care of a horse. It's part of the reason why Equine Guelph offers online education courses. 

Gayle Ecker, director of Equine Guelph, said most animal welfare issues stem from people underestimating what goes into taking care of them, particularly horses. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

She said she doesn't hear about them often, but does see similar stories on Facebook "every once in a while." 

"In any industry, greed overrides a lot of things and certainly greed can override animal welfare," Ecker said.

For her part Bakker says she's still hoping to find her mare Olivia — and will never lease out her horses again. 

"Now I wouldn't even lend a pair of sunglasses to a friend," she said.

About the Author

Nicole Brockbank

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories.

With files from Kelda Yuen