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As a full-service stable owner with boarded horses, your clients can rely on you to coordinate and oversee professional services like riding instructors, horse trainers, farriers, veterinarians, equine dentists, and equine massage therapists.
But what happens if a horse or person is injured as a direct result of one of these professionals? Who is liable?
Unfortunately, these scenarios can be all too common, but determining liability can be murky.
Equine activities are prevalent in the US, on both recreational and commercial levels, leading nearly every state to enact some version of an equine liability act to protect horse owners, sponsors, and participants.
These acts limit liability in the case of injury or death, as equine activities are inherently risky.
Prior to equine liability acts, liability issues were a barrier to the growth and success of equine businesses. The specifics vary by state, but they generally cover shows, riding, competitions, lessons, inspections, boarding, horse shoeing, and veterinary care.
Note that these acts apply to damages when people – not horses – are injured while participating in an equine activity.
The liability related to horses comes from case law, which is an aggregate of reported cases. For liability to exist, the following elements must be present:
Duty exists between the injured party and the party that caused the accident that resulted in an injury. One party must have a duty to the injured party to not cause harm or prevent harm.
For example, a relationship exists between the stable owner and the boarder and between a riding instructor and a student.
Breach of Duty
A breach of duty is the action – or inaction – that caused an accident, and that accident must have caused the injury.
For example, an instructor could be aware that a horse has serious vices that could be dangerous and inappropriate for a rider’s experience level but chooses to use it for a lesson. The instructor has a duty to protect the rider from injury outside of the inherent risks of riding.
Proximate causation is a cause that is legally sufficient to find the defendant liable, meaning an event or accident that is sufficiently related to an injury that is deemed the event that caused the injury.
For example, the instructor chose to put an inexperienced rider on a horse with a known rearing issue. The horse reared and threw the rider, leading to injuries. The decision to put an inexperienced rider on a dangerous horse was the underlying cause of the injury.
Finally, the accident and injury must have resulted in damages. Typically, these are physical injuries, but damages could also refer to property damage – including the injury or death of a horse.
In negligence cases, all elements of negligence must be proven, except under strict liability. Also known as liability without fault, strict liability applies to abnormally dangerous activities.
With equine activities, certain activities can be viewed as abnormally dangerous in certain jurisdictions.
For example, certain states may consider a horse owner strictly liable for property damage caused by a horse at large. In others, the court may need to prove that the owner was negligent and allowed the horse to escape.
Some states regard the simple act of owning a horse at all an abnormally dangerous activity, while others classify certain breeds or types of horses abnormally dangerous, such as racehorses or stallions.
Determining an “abnormally dangerous” activity considers several factors:
Individual states may categorize equine activities as abnormally dangerous based on their own interpretation.
To determine liability, the court must decide if the parties involved were exercising reasonable care and whether any action could have prevented the accident.
These cases are rarely so black and white, however.
If someone is clearly at fault, the lawsuit may be settled before a trial. For example, a riding instructor who asks a beginner student to jump a green horse over a five-foot fence demonstrates clear fault.
The defendant has a few options to defend the accident, including intervening forces, the assumption of risk, and contributory negligence.
An intervening force may be something like a lightning strike or a car backfiring and spooking a horse, causing the rider to be thrown. The student could claim that the instructor asked too much of them for their experience level, but the instructor could claim that a loud lightning strike startled the horse as an intervening force that caused the accident.
The assumption of risk argues that the injured party knowingly and voluntarily entered into a risky situation, such as riding a horse. This could be through signing a waiver or by simply knowing that riding horses carries risks. In this case, the strength of the liability waiver could make or break the case.
For example, a rider may sign a lease agreement and liability release prior to riding a horse. If the horse then bolted and the rider was thrown, a liability release that acknowledges that horses can be unpredictable and may spook, buck, kick, bite, or bolt, leading to injury or death, the risk of riding is understood.
Finally, contributory negligence expects all parties involved to exercise a reasonable level of care to protect themselves from harm. If the injured party played any role in their own injury, the entire claim may be negated – depending on the state.
For example, if a rider was told not to use a crop or spurs on a particular horse, but still chose to and was thrown and injured, that could be seen as contributory negligence. This also applies to situations in which the injured party knowing walked into a dangerous situation, such as seeing a horse cast in a stall and sustaining an injury trying to help.
Whether your workers are employees or independent contractors can have a big impact on your business.
If you hire employees, you are legally responsible for federal, state, and local payroll taxes and labor and employment laws related to work hours, wages, safe working conditions, and immigration status.
You’re also legally responsible for your employees’ actions while they’re acting within the scope of their job duties. That means if an employee is negligent and their actions lead to the injury of a horse or rider, you may be liable.
With independent contractors, the responsibility falls on them. They have to handle their own taxes and insurance, and your liability for their actions is limited.
Typically, professional service providers like farriers and riding instructors are independent contractors.
Other workers, such as stall cleaners and groomers, may be either employees or independent contractors, depending on the stable.
Independent contractors have an independent business and contract to perform particular jobs or tasks. You have little control over how they do their job, besides communicating your expectations.
A farrier is a good example of an independent contractor since they have their own customers – often at different facilities – purchase, maintain, and transport their own equipment and tools, and set their own work schedules. They’re also responsible for carrying their own liability insurance.
If there’s a question of who is legally responsible for negligent acts that cause injury, the differences between an employee and independent contractor are incredibly important.
In the past, the party harmed by the negligence of an independent contractor were unable to sue the employer for compensation. Several exceptions have no been developed, however, allowing an employer of an independent contractor to be liable for an independent contractor in a similar way to an employee.
Often, an employer will respond to a lawsuit by arguing that they can’t be liable for the acts of a negligent independent contractor because that’s not actually their employee. This isn’t an automatic shift of liability to the independent contractor, however.
There are several exceptions, including:
Even with an independent contractor, the employer is still liable for negligent supervision.
For example, a stable owner who handles farrier services on behalf of the boarders is responsible for vetting the farrier and ensuring that they are properly trained and licensed. If they fail to do so, the employer’s own negligence creates exposure that can make them liable for the damage that resulted from the farrier’s actions.
An employer may be liable for the actions of an independent contractor if they ask them to perform a task for which they owe a non-delegable duty of care to the public.
For example, a stable owner is responsible for maintaining the stable, pastures, and property for the safety and wellbeing of the boarders and their horses. If they hire a contractor to complete work on the property and it’s done poorly, leading to the injury or death of a horse, they can be held liable for the work of the contractor. In this case, both the stable owner and the independent contractor would be held liable.
An employer can’t disavow liability for injury if they’ve requested the independent contractor perform work that is inherently dangerous.
An activity that’s classified as “inherently dangerous” involves risks of harm to others which may be reduced by taking proper and reasonable safety precautions.
By this definition, virtually all equine activities could be considered inherently dangerous, so the stable owner could retain liability for harm caused by the negligence of an independent contractor.
Boarding facilities vary significantly. Some may offer the minimum services and care, while others may be full service, including holding horses for veterinary or farrier care.
Furthermore, some stable owners allow boarders to bring in whichever professional service providers they wish, as long as they handle the scheduling and payment themselves. Others prefer to work only with their preferred veterinarians, farriers, trainers, and instructors, leaving them open to more possible liability.
However you structure your boarding facility, protecting yourself from liability requires an ironclad boarding contract, proper insurance, and due diligence in vetting your independent contractors.
A boarding contract should have the legal business name, address, and phone number of the stable and horse owner. If the stable is a corporation or LLC, that should be indicated in the business name.
There should be a description of the horse being boarded, including any information that can be used to positively identify the animal like brands, markings, and color. Any known vices that horse may have should also be included, since they may offer protection in the event of an injury or damage.
Next is all the specifics of what’s included in the boarding fee. Be specific and include information about how often the horse will be turned out, whether it will be with other horses, and how it will get exercise in inclement weather. Include the schedule for feeding and watering and any fees for special services like training, blanketing, and handling.
This is an opportunity to outline the expectations for professional services as well. If you expect your boarders to schedule their own veterinary appointments, farrier visits, and regular care like deworming and vaccinations, that should be written in the contract.
If you expect them to use your own service providers, be clear about your expectations for scheduling, payment, and handling. Because horses should be vaccinated and dewormed at the same time, be sure to cover that in your contract to keep all of the horses in your care current.
Whether your boarders use their service providers or yours, you should be explicit about your procedures for emergency situations. You need to know what you’re authorized to do – and with whom – if the horse is ill or injured and the horse owner can’t be reached.
Include details about the payment schedule and the penalties for non-payment. Most states allow stable owners to use the horse as a lien for non-payment of the boarding fees, but putting it in the contract removes all doubt. The contract should also state that the attorney’s fees and legal fees are the responsibility of the owner if this situation should arise.
If you have any stable rules, include them in the contract. It’s best to set up expectations in advance with clear rules and consequences. Some rules to consider include the expectation for helmets, appropriate visiting and riding times, and equipment storage.
The last – but most important – detail is the liability release. This protects you if a horse owner is injured while riding or working with horses on your property.
Insurance may not always protect you in the case of a lawsuit, but it’s vital to have while operating a boarding facility. The three types of insurance that are recommended include fire and theft, commercial liability, and care, custody, and control (CCC) insurance.
Your commercial liability policy will cover all horse-related activities, including horse shows, lessons, clinics, and any other activities that may result in injury or property damage. A CCC policy covers death or injury to a horse as a result of your own negligence.
If you’re bringing in independent contractors like farriers and riding instructors, it’s crucial that you vet them to ensure that they’re properly trained, licensed, and insured.
Riding instructors are supposed to carry their own CCC insurance that covers all their locations and activities, rather than relying on the facility for insurance. Both veterinarians and farriers should carry CCC insurance and commercial general liability insurance of their own, separate from your policy.
Running a boarding stable can be a profitable business, especially if you offer value-added services like coordinating independent professional service providers to make the experience more convenient for your boarders. But in doing so, it’s important that you do your due diligence to protect yourself, your business, and the owners and horses in your care.
Still have questions? Here are answers to the most common questions about liability with a boarding stable.
Horse owners who board their horses should carry a private horse owner liability insurance policy to protect the owner and horse on and off the property. Many boarding operations require horse owners to carry this insurance, so you may want to consider this as a requirement for your own facility.
When a stable owner accepts the responsibility of caring for a horse that’s owned by someone else, the law imposes the duty of reasonable care. This means the facility and its employees must use the degree of care that any reasonable person would exercise in the same circumstances.
Veterinarians, farriers, horse trainers, and practitioners for services like equine massage, chiropractic, and acupuncture are considered equine professionals who have control of the situation. Whether a situation or activity is safe is at their discretion.
For example, if a farrier is preparing to shoe a horse and there are kids playing loudly nearby, dogs running loose, or a lot of clutter in the barn aisle, the responsibility is theirs to choose not to work on the horse until the situation is safe. Likewise, equine professionals can choose not to work on a horse with a volatile temperament or poor training that may create a hazard.
That said, there’s responsibility on the part of the people in the vicinity to use common sense when an equine professional is working on a horse. For example, it’s reasonable to expect that people aren’t dropping hay bales from the loft, starting a loud tractor or lawnmower near the work area, or even feeding other horses while a horse is receiving care.
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