So, You Want a Horse?: A Primer on Equine Law

Horse ownership can be very enjoyable
and, for many people, a lifelong passion
that brings you face-to-face with the cycle
of life, the weather and nature.

Horse ownership can be very enjoyable
and, for many people, a lifelong passion
that brings you face-to-face with the cycle
of life, the weather and nature. When you own
a horse, you start to adjust your life around the
seasons in the same way that farmers and
ranchers have done for hundreds of years.

Although a highly rewarding experience,
purchasing and owning a horse presents certain
risks and challenges. Horses are animals, not
machines, and an average, well-maintained horse
weighs around 1,000 pounds. Like people, they
have good days and bad. And even a very friendly,
mature, trained horse can still unintentionally hurt
someone when startled, nervous or frightened.

In this feature, we will discuss how the use
of contracts and equine liability legislation can
maximize your horse ownership experience by
mitigating or eliminating many of those risks and
challenges and helping you avoid tort liability.


Contracts

Contracts can mitigate and apportion risk and need not be complicated.
You should have a written contract whenever you buy, sell or lease
a horse. You should have a written contract when you board a horse,
hire a trainer or start riding lessons. You should also consider apportioning
risk by purchasing insurance.


Sales and Leases

Buying a horse without a written contract is a risky
business. Even if both parties are acting in good
faith, recollections of conversations, decisions, and
terms and conditions can easily become confused.
It is beneficial to both parties involved in the
transaction to put their negotiations in writing.

What kind of things should be in the contract?

  • The seller’s name and address
  • The buyer’s name and address
  • The horse’s name, registration number
    and identifying marks
  • The sales terms including price and contingencies
    (e.g., passing a vet check or a “try out” period)
  • A warranty as to title, and that the horse
    is free of liens

Horses can be purchased or leased. Many people
are unfamiliar with the idea of leasing a horse, but
it is an option that more people might consider.
Leases can reduce risk and are a very good idea for
individuals who may want to “try out” a horse for
an extended period, or whose needs may change
over time.

For example, if a rider wants to compete in a
particular event for a limited period of time, leasing
a “finished” horse with expertise in a particular
event can be a good idea. Similarly, a parent with
a growing child might want to lease a pony until
the child outgrows the animal and then purchase
a full-sized horse. Likewise, if a parent wants to give
a child a chance to see if he or she will stick with
riding, leasing is a good option.

Leases can be a full lease or half lease. In a half
lease, parents of two children can split the cost
of the lease and expenses and have their children
share a horse or pony. If a horse or pony is half
leased, be sure to spell out who has what rights to
use the horse. This can be a challenge not unlike
negotiating joint custody of a child, but failing to
spell things out ahead of time can lead to hard
feelings or worse. Leases should include the same information
as a sales contract plus the beginning and ending
periods of the lease, the conditions under which
the horse will be kept, who pays for vet care and
farrier visits, and who bears the risk of loss.

Boarding Options

Agreements for boarding, riding lessons and
training should always be in writing. In fact, if
the boarding facility, teacher or trainer does not
require you to sign a contract, you should strongly
consider finding another place with which to do
business. Professionals and ethical horsemen will
always use written contracts. Not being presented
with a written contract to sign is a “red flag” and
signals unnecessary risk.

Boarding barns should have several key clauses
in their contracts. The contract should spell out the
level of care for the horse. Generally, the options are
“full board,” “stall board” or “pasture board.”

Full board usually means that the horse will
be fed and watered, its stall will be picked and the
horse turned out for exercise. With full board, the
owner need do nothing but groom, saddle and
enjoy his horse.

Stall board usually means that the boarder
has access to a stall, but bears the burden of daily
care for the horse.

Pasture board generally means the horse
remains turned out to graze. For an additional
fee, a pasture-boarded horse may get grain and
supplemental vitamins, minerals or hay.

The boarding contract should state the parts
of the facility to which the boarder has access.
There may be trails, round pens or arenas that are
off limits to some boarders. The contract should
describe what emergency care will be rendered
without the boarder present and what vet is on
call for emergency care. If the boarder requests
that a certain vet or clinic provide care, be sure to
include the name and contact information in the
contract to reduce the risk of a mistake ending in
a bad result. The contract should recite what, if any, insurance the barn has that covers boarders’
horses, tack and potential liability to third parties.

Lessons and Training

There is a difference between a horse trainer and a
riding instructor. A horse trainer trains horses.
A riding instructor teaches people how to ride.
That distinction may seem obvious, but many
horse owners mix and match the terms. The two
fields of endeavor are very different. To avoid risk
of injury to the rider and the horse, as well as the
risk of disappointment, make sure you know with
which one you are contracting. A riding instructor
often has a “string” of “lesson horses.” Lesson horses
are normally finished, mature horses that are calm
and unflappable regardless of what mistakes a
novice rider makes. Some riding instructors are
good horse trainers too, but do not count on it.
Horse trainers seldom give riding lessons.

Regardless of whether you are hiring a trainer
or a riding instructor, you need a written contract.
The contract should spell out what is to be done,
for how long and at what cost. If you are hiring
a horse trainer, there will likely be board involved,
so the issues discussed above all apply.


Mitigating Tort Liability

“Tort” is the area of the law that encompasses
“negligence,” or liability through fault. Tort also includes
another legal concept many people never encounter
called “strict liability,” or liability without fault.


An owner or lessee runs the risk of liability in
tort if his or her horse injures or causes damage
to a third party. This might be due to the horse
escaping a boarding facility, “spooking” and
injuring another rider or bystander, or getting
into a fight with a pasture mate and injuring
another horse.

Risk of tort liability is mitigated in three ways.
First, purchase a good insurance policy. Second,
make sure the boarding or training facility has
good fences, workers and equipment. Third,
make sure the facility has “equine liability”
signs posted that comply with state law.

Insurance

Insurance for horses and their owners is readily
available and covers a wide range of risks. Insurance
companies sell life and health insurance,
fertility insurance, insurance for “loss of use” and
to cover liability to third parties. Premiums are
generally quite reasonable. If the owner or lessee
does not want or need anything but liability
insurance, many insurance carriers can add that
coverage to a homeowner’s liability policy.

Facility inspection

Before you board your horse, look around. Talk to
people you meet at the barn. Look at the fences.
Are they in good repair? Are the gates standing
well on their hinges, or dragging on the ground?
Is there trash and loose tack lying around?
Are the pastures free of obstructions and
parked farm equipment? Are workers friendly
and going about their business? A well-managed
barn will be clean, organized and exhibit
a professional air. Pastures with holes or equipment
in them, damaged fences and loose gates
are very dangerous for horses and riders. If your
inspection reveals problems, you might consider
boarding your horse somewhere else.

Equine Liability Laws

Nearly all states now have laws that protect
barn and horse owners, trainers and riding instructors
from liability for injuries or damages
suffered in the ordinary course of riding, showing
or handling horses. The majority of states
require that signs be posted that recite specific
language from the applicable statute informing
the reader that he or she assumes the risk
of injury from engaging in “equine activities.”

Look around the barn. If you do not see such
signs, ask the owner if that state has such a
law. If it does, ask why the signs are not posted.
It may be that the state is one of the minority
of jurisdictions that do not require posting. If
signs are required but not posted, this is a red
flag, too. This tells you the barn management
does not care enough to protect itself, or you
and your horse.