"Finders, keepers" is one of the fundamental principles of playground property law, but does it also apply to a stray horse that wanders onto your farm?

That question came up during an equine law class that I teach every spring in the Business Department at the University of Louisville. The answer depends on state law, but it’s safe to say that in most cases the person who finds a stray horse does not automatically become the animal’s legal owner.

Kentucky statutes, for example, allow a person to take possession of a stray horse that is found "running at large outside of its enclosure" or if it appears "from the circumstances that its owner has abandoned it." The finder then must "post" the stray by appearing before a justice of the peace, stating under oath the circumstances under which the stray was found, and delivering copies of the record to the county clerk and the sheriff. Ninety days later, if no one has claimed the stray, absolute ownership of the horse vests in the person who found it. If the owner of the stray does show up, the finder is entitled to be reimbursed for money spent caring for the horse. In an odd twist, the finder also has the authority to have the stray gelded during the waiting period.

Texas has a similar procedure, but without the provision automatically transferring ownership to the finder after a period of time. Instead, the sheriff can sell the horse after trying unsuccessfully to locate the owner, with the finder having the option of bidding on the animal.

State laws generally do not assume that a stray has been abandoned by an owner with no intent of reclaiming the horse. Provisions requiring an attempt to locate the owner are common, and anyone wanting to establish legal title to a stray must follow state law or risk losing the horse if the true owner eventually makes an appearance.

Talk of abandoned horses brought to mind the story of Fanfreluche, a Northern Dancer mare that almost certainly was the most famous stray of all time. In June 1977, thieves pulled a horse trailer up to a paddock at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky, and drove away with Fanfreluche. She was a champion race horse, a stellar broodmare, and carrying a foal sired by Triple Crown winner Secretariat. The brazen theft garnered international attention and the interest of the FBI.

Fanfreluche finally was located six months later on a farm in Tompkinsville, a small town near the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Larry McPherson, a pipe-fitter who owned the farm and who was not implicated in the theft, said that he found Fanfreluche wandering on the highway near his house and he took her in. News of Fanfreluche’s theft apparently never made it to Tompkinsville, however, and the mare joined McPherson’s other horses: a pony, a Quarter Horse, and a palomino. The family named the mare "Brandy" and they used her as a riding horse.

Someone reportedly offered $200 for the mare, but McPherson turned it down.

"I just didn’t feel right selling something that didn’t belong to me," he told reporters at the time, "so I just kept her and waited for the day when somebody would come claim her."

On February 16, 1978, Fanfreluche produced a foal appropriately named Sain et Sauf—French for "safe and sound." The colt didn’t live up to the expectations of his pedigree. He won three times in 18 starts and eventually was exported to India. Fanfreluche later was sold at auction for $1.3 million, at the time a record price for a broodmare.