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We may love and cherish our horses, but according to the law, they’re property that can be bought and sold. Sometimes, these sales transactions are done with a word and a handshake, leaving either party vulnerable to a future dispute over ownership.
A horse may be owned by an individual, a partnership, a corporation, or a limited liability company. Ownership may be established by a verbal or written agreement, or by the law based on acts or omissions of a party.
In many ownership disputes, the problem arises when there’s no written agreement, or the written agreement is ambiguous, and there’s a verbal understanding in place. Without evidence, it becomes difficult to prove the terms of the agreement – or possibly, that one was in place at all.
Evidence of an agreement could be written or verbal communication, including emails and text messages, social media posts, and competition entry forms. Third-party witnesses can be used to corroborate how the parties involved in the dispute interacted with each other.
Contrary to popular belief, registering a horse with a governing body, such as a breed or show association, is not a legal title. In fact, many of these governing bodies disclose, in writing, that registration is not a legal title.
Still, if an ownership dispute arises without much supporting evidence, the registration of the horse can be used as evidence to establish ownership. This is because in most cases, the buyer is expected to register the horse as soon as it’s in their possession.
As a buyer, these documents provide a lot of detail about the horse, including its prior health or competition history, previous ownership, and more. It will also include any other parties that have an interest in the horse that may impact its sale, such as co-owners.
Otherwise, the ownership of a horse may be established in a bill of sale, or written agreement between the seller (or seller agent) and buyer. Many states require a written bill of sale for horse sales, but not always.
Most often, disputes arise when the sale of a horse is done based on trust. The parties involved choose not to put anything in writing, leaving them all vulnerable to a dispute in the future.
When this happens, the lawyers must rely on insufficient evidence for the dispute, such as third-party witnesses, the exchange of money, and any written communication exchanged between them (formal or informal). They may also use documentation like a pre-purchase exam, but that could cloud the issue depending on who the veterinarian listed as the buyer or seller.
Contract law will govern whether a contract or legally recognized agreement exists between the parties to the ownership dispute.
When disputes arise as to the ownership of a horse, some people may resort to illegal acts to get their animal back. The law may see horses as property, but for some owners, they’re companions, teammates, or a valued member of the family.
It’s important that horse owners never take matters into their own hands with ownership disputes. Actions like moving a horse to a different jurisdiction or removing it from another property, essentially “stealing” it, is not looked upon favorably in the court. This could subject the owner to claims of trespass by the other alleged owners.
In addition, if the horse is listed for sale and you attempt to interfere with the prospect of a sale, you could leave yourself vulnerable to a claim for damages – even if it doesn’t impact the sale.
Similar risks apply to slander of title, which is when someone publishes a false and disparaging remark about a party’s title to property. Most states allow for damages in the case of slander of title, since it’s treated as an invasion of the seller’s interest in the salability of the property – in this case, the horse. A wary prospect is not likely to purchase a horse if they believe they’re leaving themselves open to a legal battle over ownership in the future.
In many cases, a horse isn’t a cheap purchase. Some people handle this situation with payment installments, leasing, or lease-to-own arrangements. Often, these arrangements are mutually beneficial.
Problems with ownership can arise, however. The buyer may acquire the horse and stop making payments, or may run into hardship and struggle to make the monthly payments. The seller (rightful owner) may then have trouble trying to get the horse back, even though the buyer violated the payment arrangement.
Simply going to the property and removing the horse could add to the legal issues with trespassing and theft, making the entire process more of a hassle.
Repossession is possible, but it’s complex. Both parties need to have a legally valid contract with the appropriate language to indicate that the seller can repossess the horse for non-payment. The law in the state may also give the unpaid seller the right to repossess the horse without charges of trespassing or resistance from the buyer.
If these options aren’t available, the seller can go to court and request a valid court order that allows themselves, or someone acting on their behalf, to repossess the horse. This may be necessary if the buyer refuses to return or part with the horse, there was no contract, or the contract doesn’t include repossession rights.
It’s vital that the seller handles this situation according to the law. Any mistake can be considerable, since repossession means entering private property to take a horse. Without the proper legal grounds in place, the seller may be hit with legal charges of trespassing and theft. If the horse is then transported over state lines, it could move into federal criminal territory.
Aside from situations in which one party wants “their” horse, ownership disputes can present other legal problems. For example, if a horse injures someone and the injured person brings a lawsuit against the owner, knowing who the legal owner is matters.
This situation can get more complicated in the case of payment arrangements or leases, since the person responsible for the injury isn’t technically the owner yet. With a lease, the injured person may sue both the lessor and the lessee.
With all the possible ways an ownership dispute can arise, there is one solution that applies to all of them – written contracts.
At the least, the sale of a horse should have a written sales contract that protects both the buyer and seller. This is important for not just ownership disputes, but any disputes that may arise related to soundness, suitability, purchase terms, and more.
The horse community likes to rely on a handshake and trust. That’s great when everything goes smoothly, but it leaves everyone vulnerable when a dispute arises. Requesting contracts doesn’t need to be adversarial – they’re there to protect both parties and keep the entire process transparent.
A simple sales contract should be signed by both parties and include:
The cost for a lawyer to draft a sales contract is only a small fraction of the potential cost to bring an ownership dispute to court, not to mention the time, stress, and emotional turmoil involved in fighting for ownership of your horse.
There will always be disputes about the ownership of horses, especially if the horse world continues to rely on “gentlemen’s agreements” in the purchase and sale of horses. When large sums of money are involved, however, it’s best to exercise caution and protect yourself from future disputes by ensuring your contracts are in order.
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