Horses and the Law

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Equine Liability Signs

Owning a horse is supposed to be fun. But misunderstanding equine-related legal issues can cause horse owners hassle and heartache, not to mention a lot of expense. Educating yourself about these legalities helps ensure that your involvement with horses remains a pleasurable experience.

Julie Fershtman is an equine law practitioner in Farmington Hills, Mich. A frequent author and speaker, she has written more than185 published articles and has authored two books on legal topics related to horses. She has been riding for decades and lives on a small horse farm in the city. Krysia Carmel Nelson is an attorney in Charlottesville, Va., who also specializes in equine law. She grew up competing in hunters and jumpers and rode for Olympian–turned-racehorse-trainer Michael Matz during law school, and is a member of the Farmington Hunt Club.

Whether you keep your horse at home or at a boarding stable, ride for pleasure or competitively, these two horse enthusiasts and legal professionals share some hard-earned knowledge that might help you avoid the most common legal mistakes horse owners make.

Equine Law: The Basics

Know the requirements of the equine-activity liability act that apply to you.

You have probably noticed signs posted at barns or around public riding trails warning that riding is a dangerous sport and is performed at one’s own risk, or something to that effect.

“As of October 2007, 46 states had some form of an equine-activity liability act,” says Fershtman. “All of them differ and most of them require that certain warnings or other language is included in contracts that equine professionals and/or equine activity sponsors use in their activities. (“Equine activity sponsor” means an individual, group or club, operating for profit or not for profit, which sponsors, organizes, or provides for equine activities.) Many of the acts also require signs to be posted [on property where equestrian activity occurs]. Under the laws of some states, those who fail to comply with these requirements lose the benefit of the statute if a claim is made against them.”

Nelson points out that equine liability laws are not “zero” liability or “total immunity” laws. “Everyone needs to understand that you still need to have insurance. These laws don’t prevent you from getting sued,” she notes.

Secure proper liability insurance for your equine business activities.

Many equine professionals wrongly assume that their homeowner’s liability insurance protects them if something goes wrong in their business activities. Fershtman says that people sometimes learn this the hard way after a lawsuit is brought against them and their insurance company refuses to provide a legal defense.

“Equine professionals [who are] running businesses need business insurance such as commercial general liability insurance or equine professional liability insurance depending on their operations,” she says.

Amateur riders should also consider insurance in some cases, and finding the right policy is best achieved with professional guidance. “It’s funny how horse people will talk about a great horse being ‘your insurance policy’–they’ll buy the horse, but then they don’t buy the right insurance,” Nelson explains. “They’ll spend their savings on purchasing the horse, but then not insure that investment against death, injury or illness (in insurance-speak, Mortality, Loss of Use, or Major Medical). They may not even think about getting insurance in case the horse hurts someone or gets loose and runs into the road causing a car accident (liability insurance). They may not have health insurance to cover themselves in case they get hurt. And most people don’t even think about whether they should consider disability insurance in case they get hurt in a riding accident and are laid up and unable to work for a considerable period of time.”

What kind of insurance to buy can be the subject of an entire article, but the most important thing is to find an insurance agent you trust, and then communicate everything that you are doing with your horse, and have him or her explain all the different kinds of insurance you might need. If you can’t find an insurance agent to spell it out for you, an attorney can do the explaining part-but you’ll still have to find an insurance agent to sell you the right policies.

“I’ve had people come to me wanting to set up a commercial boarding and lesson barn, and then abandon the project after they price out the insurance they would need,” Nelson says. “It’s true that insurance is expensive, but having no insurance or not enough will be more expensive in the long run.”

Many aspects of dealing with horses are completely unpredictable and uncontrollable. As Nelson points out, “You can buy a lovely horse from someone at your barn, and the next day it puts a foot wrong stepping out of its stall and breaks a leg. There’s no legal remedy to pursue. Most of the calls I get involve problems where the caller would be in a much better position if she or he had gotten the right kind of insurance and/or had a good written contract.”

Get It In Writing.

Probably the most important point to consider for people involved with horses is to get everything in writing. Traditionally, for example, a horse sale could be guaranteed with a handshake, but in today’s world that is simply not good enough. And even when you get it in writing, it is important to pay attention to contract details to ensure that you’re protected.

“It continually amazes me that so few people in the equine industry use contracts,” Fershtman says. “Years ago, I handled a sales lawsuit involving a $400,000 horse that was sold on a handshake. I am now handling a lawsuit where a boarded horse died, but the stable owned by a highly successful businessman used no contracts.”

Fershtman points out that of the many calls her office receives, about 80 percent come from people who encountered serious problems with verbal contracts. “With verbal contract disputes, one guarantee is certain: They are rarely resolved quickly, easily or cheaply. They create a shouting match because the two parties of the transaction never agree on the contract’s terms, or even whether a contract existed!”

In contrast, a written contract offers solid proof of an agreement and can prevent disputes altogether or can help narrow the grounds of a dispute, if one should occur. The initial investment in a good written contract, especially one drafted by an experienced lawyer, often proves well worth the money.

“The importance of a properly written contract is that it accurately reflects the intentions and understanding of the parties, and is easily enforceable in the event one side doesn’t fulfill their obligations,” Nelson says. “You’d be amazed at how many people think they don’t need a lawyer to draft a contract. If you aren’t a lawyer, you are not really in any position to look at a form you’ve found on the Internet and understand its legal implications.”

Buying, selling and leasing horses are not just things that professionals do; everyday horses owners conduct these transactions, too, and usually lack the experience of a professional. Even though you might not be selling a $100,000 competition horse, it pays to protect your interests.

“If someone calls me and says, ‘I’m going to sell my horse, and this is the installment payment plan that the buyer has proposed,’ I’ll start asking questions like, ‘What happens if the buyer misses a payment?’ ‘Where is the horse going to live until it’s paid for?’ ‘What if the horse goes lame or dies before it’s paid for?’ ‘Who’s paying what commissions to the trainers involved?’ Usually these are things no one has thought of,” Nelson explains. “But they are all things that can be discussed and worked out, and then incorporated into a contract. And then if something goes wrong along the way, either side can look at the contract and be reminded of what is supposed to happen next.”

She adds, “In an installment purchase situation, sellers always seem surprised to learn that installment payments are not automatically forfeited if the sale doesn’t go through. They think it works just like with cars–miss a payment, the car is repossessed. Well, the reason it works that way with cars is because when you finance a car, you sign this big long contract that lets the finance company do that. It’s not something that’s just ‘the law’ and equally applicable to horses. You need a contract to accomplish that.”

Use Proper Liability Releases

Releases of liability (also called “waivers”) are probably the most misunderstood documents in the horse industry. In the many states that enforce liability releases, the courts demand that the releases be properly worded and signed. Fershtman shares a few problems with releases that she has encountered from actual cases in her law practice and lessons to be learned from them:

  • Accept No Excuses. The best release form is worthless if it is unsigned. Make sure everyone who is riding or handling horses on your property fills out and signs a release form.
  • Remember Who Can Sign Them. In the case of a minor, a parent or legal guardian must sign the release form; a minor’s signature on the liability release is usually not legally binding.
  • Guard Important Contracts Under Lock and Key, If Necessary. No matter how much you trust boarders and employees, certain legal documents should be safeguarded for your legal protection.
  • Fill In The Blanks. Fershtman suggests that form releases found in books and sold in stores are, at best, a starting point. Why? “One case on which I worked makes the point. In the case, a [boarding] stable merely photocopied and used a one-size-fits-all equine release from a form book. The form stated, in part: “In exchange for the privilege of riding horses at XYZ Farm, I agree to release and hold harmless __________________.” Unfortunately, nobody bothered to fill in the second blank, leaving the release empty as to who was released from liability!”

Know When to Seek Legal Counsel

People in the horse industry can be self-reliant to a fault. Horses take a lot of work and expense, and to make ends meet many horse people care for, raise, train and show their own horses; some even administer their own medications and shots. Fershtman points out that, these people often carry their self-reliance into legal matters, and she gets involved once the trouble becomes apparent. Seeking legal counsel from the get-go can avoid trouble later on.

“Simple contracts, such as a bill of sale, usually can be done without a lawyer,” Fershtman advises. “But the more complex contracts, such as releases of liability, installment sale contracts and leases, might vary greatly with the laws of each state. These types of contracts really deserve the attention of an experienced, knowledgeable lawyer. The lawyer can draft the contract or could be hired to review a contract and offer his or her opinion. Lawsuits, I believe, are best handled by lawyers, unless the matter is in small claims court.”

On the other hand, in some cases a lawyer is not the appropriate person to call. Nelson says she often gets calls from people who think they have “an equine law emergency.” “In my book,” she says, “there is no such thing.”

She recalls a particularly dramatic story about a woman who was both panicked and misguided. “I’ll never forget the woman who called me in tears to say she needed me to write her a note, right away, so that she could move her horse to a different barn. When she went to pick up her horse, the barn owner was standing in front of the horse’s stall with a shotgun, the stall was padlocked and the barn owner shot at her trailer as she drove away. I told her, ‘Ma’am, a note from a lawyer won’t keep you from getting shot. You need the sheriff.’ Then she asked if I would go with her. I declined. I told her I figured if the guy was willing to shoot at her, he’d be willing to shoot at me, too.”

Nelson says that probably more than half of the advice she gives out is not legal expertise, but plain old common sense. “But I think that’s why my law license says ‘attorney and counselor at law,’” she says. “If someone calls and I don’t think they need my services, I’ll tell them so.”

Further Reading
Be Smart When Horse Shopping
Equine Economics: Love Him? Then Lease Him!
Equestrian Related Liabilities

33 COMMENTS

  1. The article was ok, I suppose, although it did NOT answer my questions.
    I travel by horseback, having ridden through 24 states on a horse, im interested and Im sure others are also; in the requirements for proper paper work regarding the horse, what documentation is needed, what shots or records thereof, rules of the road..so forth and so on…
    I have done my research as I travel from state to state, and I have the basics, but what else is there?

  2. I need a simple contract to protect my neighbor from any responsibility if we get hurt while riding on his property. He has no problem with this, infact he suggested we ride his property but I want him to know that we have no intention of holding him responsible if someone is injurred.

  3. I was given a horse where I board the horse is 26yrs old and has a big growth on his neck.They feel since it was there horse they can ride it any time they want.I hav e told them to let me know first they never do so I put a padlock on my tack room now they want to discuss board.What is my legal right?

  4. I am seeking legal representation regaring a recent accident that my horse was in. I have a very nice barrel horse that I have put several thousand dollars in for trainin. My friend and fellow barrel racer took my horse to her farm so we could begin racing together. In her pasture was a electric pole with three guy wires. Two of the wires were coated in a yellow plactic the third wire was not. He was lopin the field and dodged the bright yellow wire and ran through the unmarked one that was hidden behind ir. Needless to say he suffered major injury and lost 1il of muscle and lacerations. He is alive but I will never be able to compete at the level he was trained for. The electric company realized that the wire belonged to verizon but had no record of it because they installed the guy wire without permission. I put a claim in against verizons insurance company and they explained wires are only covered in places where people are present not animals and therefore were not liable. I don’t agree and was hoping to find a virginia attorney to assist me with this process. Any suggestions would be helpful!

  5. I wish this atricle addressed bill of sale for horses. I went to NOLO and printed up a general bill of sale for a dog and used it for purchasing a horse…the owner of the horse refused to sign it and said she had never seen anything like it before and she wouldn’t sign it….I do not understand why she wouldn’t sign it…the only part she didn’t like was the part that said “If a licensed vet certifies in writing that the horse has an illness, serious disease or congenital defect that was present when the buyer took possession of horse, the buyer may within 14 days return the horse to seller for a full refund of the purchase price plus and sales tax and reimburse the buyer for the cost of reasonable veterinary care direcrlt related to the examination that showed that the horse was ill”…the only thing I can think of is that she knew the horse was sick and didn’t want to have to refund my money. If anyone could give me any legal reasons as to why a horse owner wouldnt sign this please let me know so i can be better informed. Needless to say she refused to sign it and therefore the deal was never made.

  6. I was givin a horse no papers, and a verbal contract move him by 10-1 or make arrangements with the land owner to keep him there longer if needed. so i made arrangements to have him there till i got him moved. i last spoke to her two weeks ago told her it would be about two weeks before trailor was ready. she said ok. let me know when hes moved. i went to move him and he was gone. come to find out ger and the prior owner got together and gave him to someone else they think i broke aggreement buit i didnt. they did. he had no right after givin me the horse and moving away to get rid of him i still had time to move him when they done it first. now im fighting with them and the law to get him back. they are saying they will bring him back tonight. i hope they arnt lying again. its breaking my heart to tell my son i dont know if he will come back. it was all just an missunderstanding about when he was to be moved. We just want out buddy back.

  7. Lady paid in advance for 2 months of training…the horse was enroute to the trainer in Virginia when the horse was sold by the owner to someone that saw the horse at a stop along the haulers route. The trainer was notified via voice-mail immediately after the sale was made. The trainer now refuses to return the fees paid by the owner for training of a horse she has never layed eyes on. What recourse does this lady have? Thanks

  8. does anyone know what i can do. i am free care leasing a mare. i told the owner he needs to take her back, but he wont get ahold of me and is refusing to take the mare back. someone please let me know what i can do. i no longer am able to afford to pay for the mare ad i dont want her to starve

  9. right now I have a problem with my mother trying to sale my 4 horses that are in my name I have bill of sale on all them and papers on all of them. is there anything I can do?

  10. Whats the law on selling a horse that they are making payments on. Sold a horse to a guy he makes payments each month and then he sold the horse. He made three more payments then nothing. Still have four more payments due till she is paid off.

  11. WHAT DO YOU DO IF THE STATE TAKES YOUR HORSES FOR THEM GETTING OUT YOUR PASTURE? THEY SAID IT WAS ANIMAL CRUELTY.WE HAD FEED , GRASS AND WATER.HOW DO YOU FIGHT BACK WHEN YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT. I KNOW THERE ARE MANY CASES THAT ANIMALS ARE IN POOR SHAPE, MINE WERE NOT. WHERE DO I GO FOR HELP??????

  12. The horse boarding facility illegally bred my stallion and sold semen to neighboring ranches knowing that I was going into bankruptcy. What can I do to make sure these people are criminally prosecuted?

  13. I have a registered arabIan at a private stable on a verbal agreement. They allowed a farrier to administer a sedative without my consent, did not notify me so I could be there, and my horse had several thousand dollars of vet costs to recover due to an infection.now the atBle wNtzme to pay boRding cost and clean my own stall! What army options in Tennessee?

  14. Julie F. , the contracts I see in Mi. make it very easy for farms to steal your horse for missed board. Say $1000.00 owed, but horse is worth $20,000.00. Something needs to be added to correct such unfair acts, when taking someone’s pets away. So far I haven’t seen any changes in horse laws, to make the business of horses less crooked. In Michigan.

  15. I had to horses with my ex of 12 yrs they put my colt down today 3 yrs old wont tell why . We have been split up for 2 yrs I have done everthing to get them back , he wont allow me to they r in bad living conditions . what can I do to get my mare back , she was a gift and he fully took care of me my needs an money for some of there stuff . What Can I Do SO MISSEN my horse now

  16. My mother kicked me out and sold my horse.. I just found out she was given away.. if I can prove that she was mine and was sold without my permission is there anyway I can get her back?!

  17. I have had a horse wander up on my property tonight he is very thin (you can see his ribs and hips) hooves are extremely overgrown. What is my right with this animal?

  18. my granddaughter brought her horse over to our house it was her grandma and dads left it a few days it got out a car hit it can the owner of the car sue us for the damage to her car we had horses for 30 years they never got out on the hwy the fence is up like it post to be the horse run though it in the night when we was a sleep got on the hwy and got hit the lady called me wanting money I told her it not mine I dont know what to do I have been told so many laws I dont have money fix her car Thank God she wasnt hurt

  19. Over 3 years ago a neighbor’s horse came to my pasture wanting in with my horse. My husband and I walked it home and put it back in their pasture. I immediately went by where the owner works and she said yes that it was her horse. By the time I got back (after dark) the horse was back in my yard. I called and asked her what to do. She said put it in my pasture and she would get it the next day. She never came. We talked about my buying the horse and she agreed to a sale but she never came up with a price. In 3+ years she nor her husband have even come over here to check on the horse. 2 days ago I got a text from her husband that he was removing the horse to take it back home…He did it while I was not at home. I have 3+ years of food and care invested in this horse. Do I have any rights to the horse?

  20. I have boarded my horse down the street at a stable since January of 2014. We never signed any contracts. I got behind in my payments. I have since moved to a property where I can bring him home. I contacted the stable owner and he told me the horse had been moved off the property and he won’t tell me where he is. I plan to pay my debt, but with no contract in place does he have a legal right to hold my horse hostage and not let me get him? I am tempted to call the police.

  21. sold two horses to a friend who has only paid part of the amount owed. with out a written contract how can I get the money owed or the horses returned?

  22. Hi, my pregnant horse got ran over one night and the cop only asked me, “are you going to move her out of the ditch or do we need to find someone to do it?” The guy that hit her, gets a new truck and im left with a ticket, and now they are trying to put it as animal abuse and possibly sue me. because they got out twice in one day, but we fixed the spot where we thought she and the other horse, that didnt get hit, got out. But theyre was another spot within the woods part which we didnt think they could get too that had a small tree fallen on it breaking the fence. Please tell me if this is possible and what to do. and if i could get the guy that killed her to pay for her. Please email me at gamepitbull4ever@yahoo.com

  23. American Electric Power (AEP) a billion dollar company, there power line broke one evening no rain, wind, nothing, and hit my horse and busted her chest open, luckily she is still alive, but the wont help me pay her vet bills or anything, I need to know how can I get this to the media for all public opinions, they told me I should have just put her down and got another horse and that made me so mad and in my opinion that is wrong to tell someone. Please help, thanks in advance

  24. American Electric Power (AEP) a billion dollar company, there power line broke one evening no rain, wind, nothing, and hit my horse and busted her chest open, luckily she is still alive, but the wont help me pay her vet bills or anything, I need to know how can I get this to the media for all public opinions, they told me I should have just put her down and got another horse and that made me so mad and in my opinion that is wrong to tell someone. Please help, thanks in advance. Please email me with your comments and opinions at amandazamora82@yahoo.com

  25. whether the “law” likes it or not horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, dogs, and other animals are legally “property” here in the United States of America, and cannot be taken away or controlled at the courts whim. Or anyones whim. Due process must not only be followed but very very delicately. A little manure on the street just ain’t good enough.

  26. To follow up on my own comment and the article, the news shows lots of flak on the second amendment, yet there is little recourse to change it, property rights, and not the “right to own land, or car, or house”, we really do not have, but the right to own actual property, livestock, horse, cattle, sheep, pigs, and others, which we really do have, it is an inaliable fought for not just by our founding fathers but all. I suggest you try a real court, not small claims, file as violations, of second, third, fifth, and tenth amendment rights to own property, charge criminal charges and lodge a 15 million dollar damage claim.
    Write the entire problem on a sheet of paper, date it with times, have it notarised, then pay the 65 dollar filing fee with the clerk of court.

  27. What do you do if a “broker” took your horse to sell … sells said horse and takes a personal check written to herself – lets the horse leave and go to a different state but won’t give you the money for the sale of your horse? File theft charges against the new owner who “think” they paid for it or against the broker?

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