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When drafted properly, equine liability waivers are documents with specific language that outline an equestrian’s agreement to assume the risk of riding. Equine liability waivers enable equestrian centers (or horse owners) to allow horseback riding without opening themselves up to too much liability. But, to secure this kind of protection, you must know how to properly use an equine liability waiver.
As an equestrian, one of the most important legal documents you can have is an enforceable liability release form. Riding horses is an inherently risky activity. So risky that most states actually have statutes protecting equestrian business owners and facilitating the ability to use horses in business.
In previous articles, we’ve discussed why liability release forms are so important. We encourage you to make whatever changes you need to ensure your own document is enforceable. Or, you can purchase an equine lawyer-drafted template here.
It is incredibly important to know what should be included in your equine liability release agreement. Once you have that down, the next step is understanding how you rely on it if something unexpected happens.
At Fairway Stables™, we’re in the business of horsemanship™, which means that we want you to be forewarned before something happens, so that you can be forearmed to handle it.
So, what do you do when you have to rely on your equestrian liability release form? Avoid the common mistakes with this roadmap:
Also in this post, we cover how to avoid common mistakes when it comes to your Horse Show & Clinic Liability Releases, including:
I know, this is such a lawyer statement, but always remember to keep everything in writing. So many issues in equine law can be avoided with this simple reminder!
If your equine liability waiver is being challenged, that usually means an unfortunate accident left someone injured.
So, step #1: Keep all texts and emails about the injury. Court is always our last resort, and at Fairway Stables ™, we’re always strong advocates for starting with negotiations. However, in the event that you do need a lawyer involved, you’ll need to provide as much written evidence as possible.
This is the first question to ask in any equine-related injury.
Luckily, if you have a strong liability release, your barn can be protected against “ordinary” negligence claims, such as a rider getting bucked off a spooked horse. In other words, you would be protected from “normal” accidents that could occur.
In the world of equine law, it is important to mention: there are multiple forms of negligence. I’m not going to bore you with the legalese, but this will be important later. Simply put, there are various forms of negligence, ranging from “ordinary negligence” to “gross negligence”.
For this article, what you need to know is that no liability release is likely to protect against gross negligence/willful misconduct.
In other words, if you intentionally cause the accident, your liability release won’t protect you. Gross negligence means you intentionally hurt someone, while ordinary negligence just means an accident happened.
Here’s an example of how the two scenarios could play out in a barn:
In other words, we have a (reasonably) unfortunate event versus a really obvious and serious mistake. Were both avoidable? Yes. One is a case of not being as diligent as possible, while the other willfully and knowingly ignores a problem that could cause harm. That’s the difference between ordinary and gross negligence.
This is where your equine liability waiver comes into play. What type of negligence liability does the release waiver allow for?
For example, if a few horses are housed in a paddock together, and one injures another, does the liability release specifically discuss turning horses out together?
If the release prohibits it, the stable is in trouble. However, if the release allows for it, it’s a risk that both parties knowingly took on. This means the horse farm owner would be protected.
As we discussed in our article on liability releases, the main point behind equine liability waivers is “assumption of the risk”.
This means that if the injury was “contemplated,” or mentioned, in the liability waiver, the stable owner has a better chance of disclaiming liability.
However, if the equine liability agreement was too vague, the landscape isn’t quite so black and white. This is yet another reason why your equine liability release must be specific.
You can find our own equine liability release here.
The next question your equine lawyer will ask you is to whom the accident occurred. More importantly: was the injured party under the age of 18 (a minor)?
Generally speaking, contracts signed by minors are unenforceable against the minor. If a parent is signing a liability release, they’re only able to sign away their own right to sue. Not the minor’s. (Minors can’t waive their legal rights).
Another complexity: generally, if a minor is injured, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the minor turns 18. For example, say the minor is injured while under the age of 18. Depending on the state, that person could sue the facility years later under the protection of “minor statutes”.
This, of course, leads to the obvious question: how can horse training facilities or stables remain protected, when they’re teaching horseback riding lessons to children under the age of 18? In short, equine lawyers such as myself recommend that you have a general insurance policy.
This helps fill in the gaps that liability releases may leave open, because there are always going to be exceptions in the law to protect minors.
This is simple public policy, as we can all agree that children should be protected by the law. However, if they’re choosing to ride, the trainer or stable should be protected too, right? So, how can a horse trainer protect themselves?
Start by making sure your liability release has a strong indemnification provision. While it can’t stop a child from bringing a claim, it will protect the barn against the parents bringing a claim. If the indemnification clause in the equine liability release waiver is properly worded, the barn can require the parent to pay for its legal defense/legal judgment.
Equine liability waivers become even more important if you are hosting or attending a horse show or clinic, simply because more people will be involved. However, most of the common mistakes are still avoidable. Here’s exactly what you need to know:
As we discussed in our Complete Guide to Liability, it’s critically important that your equine liability release names the correct party. Otherwise, it won’t be enforceable- i.e., useless in court.
When it comes to horse shows, here are two common problems that occur in equine law:
The easy fix: make sure your release has language such as “the participant hereby agrees to release and hold harmless the [name of organization], including all agents, employees, contractors, and volunteers of [name of organization], rather than ““the participant hereby agrees to release and hold harmless the [name of organization]”. Or, just find a ready-to-use template here.
How do you make sure the right parties have signed the horse show liability release? This is an important question that anyone hosting a horse show or clinic needs to ask themselves.
Remember from our earlier discussion on equine liability releases that a person may only waive away his or her own legal rights.
This means that if you’re asking for the participant to sign, the equine liability release will only cover them. If you want anyone else to be covered, such as
They need to sign their own releases. Also, please remember that if you’re asking someone under the age of 18 to sign an equine liability release, their parent or guardian needs to sign for them (and the release should say this).
So, the natural next question is who all should sign the liability release?
As a general rule of thumb, I advise my own equine law clients to have anyone who would be around the horses to sign an equine liability release. This will of course depend on the layout of your horse show or equine clinic, but would always include the participant and trainer, at the very least.
Let’s start with this: even though your equine liability waiver is a legal document, this doesn’t mean it has to be written in legalese.
Why? In fact, in order for it to be enforceable, it must be readable and understood by the person signing it. Remember how we discussed that equine liability waivers had to be specific? Well, in order for the person signing it to legally agree to assume the risks of participating in the event, they have to be signing a document they can read and understand.
So, how do you make sure that your equine liability release is readable, while also being specific enough? Use plain english and thoroughly explain what you’re asking the person to agree to. So, for example, here’s an example of what I tell my own equine law clients to do (and not to do):
This is one of the most common mistakes I see in the equine law world, and I completely understand. It feels awkward to ask someone to sign an agreement. I usually see the organizer of, let’s say, a horse show, give the participant one long contract for participating in the horse show. The liability release is one of the many paragraphs in the agreement. Because it feels awkward to ask someone to sign a long contract (much less, a few contracts), the liability release is often just a small paragraph squeezed in with the rest. The participant is signing everything anyway, so this is fine, right?
Wrong. If you own an equine-related business, your goal is to always have enforceable equine liability agreements, not short and hidden ones.
Again, if the liability release is written in plain English, it won’t be nearly as intimidating as one would think. In fact, I’d argue that it will just seem logical to the rider. Of course they wouldn’t hold you responsible if their horse spooks!
Here’s the mistake I often see: the liability release is hidden in the larger document or inconspicuously included somewhere in the back of an entry form. This is a huge mistake. Lead with professionalism, and make your liability release a separate agreement. With this upfront approach, you’ll be more respected as the professional you are.
We keep mentioning it for a reason: to be enforceable, equine liability releases have to be specific.
Because of that, as you might guess, you can’t just borrow one from someone else and hope it works for you. Aside from not knowing where they got it from or if it even works, there’s no way of knowing it will work for your event. As we’ve discussed many times throughout this article, this isn’t the time to skimp out, or take the easy way out.
Make sure your liability releases are correct from the beginning so it won’t come back to haunt you if an accident should happen. Once you have a reliable and enforceable equine liability release, happy horseshowing!
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