How to Afford Your Horse Habit


We all know the feeling of wanting something we can’t have. I know many of you spent your childhoods in the same boat as me, the one in which your parents wouldn’t let you have a horse. Even if you do have a horse, and you love that horse, who hasn’t coveted a top prospect in their chosen equestrian sport, or some exotic breed to stir up the mix of horses in the back field?

Now, most middle class horse owners simply work hard, budget, and forego the luxuries that people with cheaper hobbies take for granted, like new cars, vacations or morning lattes. And if you have a decent job, that’s probably enough to afford a horse and related activities. But what if that’s still not enough to keep you happy?

Rita Crundwell found a solution: embezzle a ridiculous sum of money from your employer. Crundwell was the comptroller for the small, northern Illinois town of Dixon. I doubt she woke up one morning and decided to steal as much money as she possibly could to fund her Quarter Horse habit, but over the course of 22 years, that’s allegedly what she did. She managed to embezzle $53 million, which she used to finance a large ranch and hundreds of horses. Not just any horses, but world-class breeding and show stock including World Champions on the AQHA circuit.

An online auction of 80 of her horses brought in $1.64 million. A live auction of more than 300 horses plus farm equipment totaled at $4.79 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a pretty small dent in that $53 million of Dixon taxpayer dollars that should have been paying for city services and improvements over the past two decades.

I suppose she had a lot of fun with those horses. She got to live her dream of owning and showing the best and running a world-class operation. But she must have been looking over her shoulder every minute. Wouldn’t someone wonder where she got the money to afford all that? And someone would eventually notice the multi-million dollar discrepancy in the small town’s budget, wouldn’t they?

When Kathe Swanson, Dixon’s city clerk, noticed an apparently out-of-place bank statement from a strange bank account in late 2011, Crundwell’s house of cards started to fall. The federal investigation lasted nearly half a year and uncovered some infuriating and disturbing facts. Crundwell’s embezzlement had taken half of the city’s operating budget. When the local police department needed to upgrade their equipment, she told them sorry, but there just isn’t any money. As the city faced a fiscal crisis, Crundwell would go home to millions of dollars worth of show horses that she had no right to own.

When I read the Chicago Magazine article about this ongoing case, I was reminded of a startlingly similar situation from the late 90s. Laura Shaw was a cog at an insurance company in Massachusetts. Her mundane job in the claims department was neither glamorous nor particularly lucrative, until she figured out a way to create false claimants and deposit their payments in to an account of her own. She used her ill-gotten gains to purchase and show American Saddlebreds, leading a double life for years before she was caught. When she was caught, taken to trial, and found guilty, she told the sentencing judge, “I love horses. They were living things. They were my total responsibility. I couldn’t just walk away.”

Well, we certainly all understand that feeling, which is precisely why most of us don’t take on responsibility for animals we can’t support without resorting to criminal activity in the first place.

Laura Shaw got 3 ½ years in prison. The scale of her crime—roughly $4 million over the course of a decade—was much smaller than Crundwell’s, who could face 20 years or more. In both cases, all the horses were sold to pay off the debt, and chances are, neither woman will ever see that horse-show lifestyle they so loved ever again.

By the way, Yankee Magazine published an extensive article about Shaw, which is worth the read if you have some time to kill, as is Chicago Magazine’s still-evolving write-up of the Crundwell case.

Most of us have a moral compass that would prevent us from stealing, no matter how deeply we want a horse (or a second horse, or 400 horses and a ranch to keep them on.) And even if that compass is broken, the fear of getting caught has to come into play at some point. Is feeding the horse addiction, or the addiction to the show-ring spotlight, really worth the risk? I think not, but then, I’m not Rita Crundwell or Laura Shaw.

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