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When it comes to equine law, one of the most important things equestrian facilities should do is require their riders to sign equine liability waivers before allowing any horseback riding. At the end of the day, their purpose is as simple as it is critical. Equine liability waivers or releases are meant to protect the equestrian facility from liability if an accident occurs.
Equine liability waivers go by many different names under equine law, such as:
While most equestrians have heard of these documents, there’s a common myth that a piece of paper is “worthless” when something like a horse-related accident occurs.
This article won’t just debunk that myth; we’re going to lay out exactly what you, as a horse owner, equestrian, horse trainer, or homesteader, need to know when it comes to using equine liability waivers. Plus, how to know if yours is legit. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Here’s what you need to know to use equine liability waivers correctly to legally protect your equine business:
A liability release waiver is an agreement between the person allowing someone to ride the horse, and the horseback rider. It outlines what risk the rider is taking. For example, the owner of the equestrian facility would have the rider sign this document, stating that she is assuming the risk of horseback riding.
These can be general or specific equine activity release waivers, depending upon the type of horseback riding. For example, an equine therapy center would use “equine therapy release forms”, while someone hosting a children’s pony party would use a “pony party release form”. (We’ll get into when and why you would need to use different types of forms below).
At the end of the day, these documents serve a simple, yet very important purpose. They allocate the risk of each party. In other words, the two people signing the agreement are agreeing that one party is taking on the risk of the activity. In this case, that risky activity is riding.
Let’s say we have a horse trainer who runs a great equestrian facility. She has done everything equine law requires to make her riding facility safe. One day, a horse spooks, and bucks a rider off. Should the trainer be liable for the equestrian’s fall?
Common sense would tell you no (horses are large animals with their own brains, after all!) If this trainer used a strong equine liability release, she’d be protected. Why?
The rider “knowingly assumed the risk”- and it’s in black and white writing in the equine liability release. As you can see, these equine liability release forms are an important tool to protect equestrian facilities when they host equestrian events. They’re also important to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
Anyone who allows any horseback riding should have an equine liability release. This could include:
In short, anyone who allows people to ride their horses, or ride horses on their property.
Because as much as we love our equine friends….every equestrian knows that horse-related activities are inherently dangerous.
Again, horses are large animals, with their own brains, their own personalities, and their own decision making capabilities. While we can train them, we can’t fully control them.
And while most states in the United States have adopted versions of Equine Activity Statutes, as we discussed, these statutes do not provide complete legal protection- just a first level of defense. In other words, the owner of a horse-related business can’t rely solely on their state’s Equine Activity Statute.
An equine liability release provides a second and more complete layer of protection for horse owners and professionals. In the same way that the Equine Activity Statute can dissuade overly litigious people from suing, a signed, strong liability release can discourage people from filing lawsuits in the first place. Any attorney who practices contract law, particularly an attorney familiar with equine law, will not want to take on a case where it’s clear that the person suing signed a document saying they assumed the risk of riding the horse.
But, if we take it a step further and say that the rider in our example decides to sue the trainer anyway, a strong, properly written liability release will provide a very solid defense in court and will most likely result in the dismissal of the case.
However, this logic only applies if the liability release is written correctly and is actually valid and enforceable. So, how do you know if your liability release is valid, according to equine law?
The validity of the liability release is going to hinge completely on how the document is written. Just having a liability release form does not automatically make it valid. The document has to be in compliance with your state’s particular laws, which means that most liability release forms just downloaded for free off the internet aren’t enforceable–in other words, they’re worthless.
In order for your equine liability release to stand up in court, it has to have specific language about what the equestrian is actually releasing the horse owner from.
It must completely inform the participant of the inherent risks related to equine activities. The language must spell out all of the risks- it’s always smart to start with your state’s Equine Activity Statute (these usually define what those “inherent risks” are), and explain why horseback riding can be dangerous. For example, having language like, “Horseback riding can be dangerous. You are assuming the risk,” will do nothing to protect your business in court.
In Fairway Stables™’s liability release, we specifically state the risks involved with riding lessons with other riders, such as horses spooking, the risks of jumping, etc. Under Oklahoma’s Equine Activity Statute, for example, the agreement must be in writing, the participant (or the participant’s guardian) must sign it, and it must explain to the participant why the activity is risky.
This is one of the most common mistakes that we see with forms just pulled from the internet. Make sure your liability release clearly states how the parties will handle claims of negligence. In other words, spell out to the participant that she/he is agreeing to relieve the equestrian business from liability for negligence. Without this specific language disclaiming negligence, the release typically will not actually shield the equestrian business from liability.
In addition, it’s wise to include an indemnification provision, which would obligate the person signing to pay for your legal costs or expenses in the event of a lawsuit.
This becomes particularly important if you are dealing with a rider who is under the age of 18. Because they legally cannot sign away their legal rights, the release needs to specify that the release of liability is being signed by a parent or legal guardian. If the indemnification provision is drafted correctly, it will bind the signing party to agree that if someone sues you, and you win the suit, the person who signed will pay your attorney’s fees.
In other words, it should specify the parties being released.
Here is a common mistake that we see at Fairway Stables™: an equine facility owner gets a liability release agreement, ensures that it complies with their state’s Equine Activity Statute and that it discusses how negligence will be handled in detail. So far, so good! However, the mistake usually occurs at the end of the document, and it’ll be hiding in plain sight:
The business owner must sign this document, indicating their role and the business name. For example, sign like this:
/s/ Paige Hulse.
Paige Hulse, owner, Fairway Stables, LLC
Remember, if the wrong person signs your liability release, it will not be enforceable.
Essentially, anyone who will interact with the horses on your property:
It may feel strange to ask so many people to sign liability releases at first, but over time, it will feel like second nature, and more than that, the patrons of your barn will expect it.
But after you ask those people to sign their releases, do you need to do anything else with them?
As a business owner, you could do everything right and check off every box listed above with flying colors. But, if you don’t have a copy of your signed liability release, the release will not be enforceable in court.
If you had to fallback on the liability release in litigation, you wouldn’t want to count on the person suing you to provide you with a copy of the signed equine liability release. This document will help you win your case, not vice-versa. Even if you have proof that they signed (such as an email thread), unless you can produce the signed copy, you’re in trouble.
So, keep it simple. Make a habit to keep a file (preferably, the signed original and a digital copy) of all signed liability waivers!
While we know that things like equine liability waivers aren’t the fun part of being an equestrian, there is good news: if you take care of this once, you don’t have to think about it again! Doing it right at the outset by having a professionally-drafted waiver that protects both parties will save so much time and hassle. At Fairway Stables™, we’ve converted our own equine liability release waiver into a template that you can find here.
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