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What every horse owner needs to know about liability to keep themselves and their horses safe.
We’re talking about animals that are 1000+ pounds. This means, as horse owners, we need to make sure we’re taking precautions to keep our horses and the people around them safe.
With a little foresight and planning, accidents and equine liability can be avoided. So, what do you need to know about equine law, the equine activity liability act, and assuming the risk of equine activities? In this post, we’ll answer the questions you may not even know to ask:
The short answer? Yes. And there are two big reasons why:
For example, if you’re a boarder, what happens if your horse kicks someone in the barn? If you house your horse on your own property, what happens if someone trespasses onto your property to pet him/her and gets kicked? According to equine law, even if you’ve done everything you can to secure your property (gates, signs, etc.), if a child were to climb the fence and hurt himself, a court will be inclined to side against you on a negligence claim. Insurance will be there to step in and help.
For example, when I was young, my first pony encountered a trailer full of fescue grass that to him looked like a giant cake just waiting to be eaten. As you can imagine, he colicked quickly, and severely, and had to spend weeks in an equine hospital. Miraculously, he survived. Thankfully, my parents had the foresight to get insurance that would help cover the cost of the episode.
The Takeaway: equine insurance will help pay for unexpected situations, such as large vet bills or accidents with your horse.
Signs. You may need to have warning signs on your property if you have horses. For example, if you have a horse that you know is dangerous (or prone to bite or kick), it’s wise to have a sign outside his stall door. In the same way, if your horses are near a lot of people (for example, if you have horses in your neighborhood), it is smart to have signs telling people, especially children, that they can’t enter your property and ride your horse. These signs just need to be in a prominent place, clearly visible, and easy to read. For example, a sign saying, “please do not feed the horses or climb on the fence.” You can find our full blog post on that topic here.
Fencing. Make sure you have a secure fence along all perimeters of the paddock with lockable gates. You have a legal duty to contain your horses. When I was young and we first moved to our property, we weren’t aware that one of our horses was an escape artist who knew how to open gates. One day, she did just that, and she and my pony traipsed around the newly-built neighborhood going up around us. Luckily, a neighbor familiar with horses was able to catch them and call us.
Our family would have been liable if they had gotten onto a major roadway or building site. Legally, it was our responsibility to keep the horse in the paddock. Also take care of the other areas of your property to make sure the property itself is safe. Fill in those holes, put up a railing along a slippery slope–common sense reigns supreme. This is going to be important no matter what, but especially if you’re allowing people onto your property to ride your horse.
The Takeaway: It’s your responsibility to keep both your horses safe and the people on your property safe.
First and foremost, do not allow visitors in his paddock/stall unattended. If you’re allowing people onto your property for business purposes, make sure the horse is in a secure enclosure with the proper warning signs. If your horse is known to kick, particularly at other horses, tie a red ribbon in his tail any time you are riding in an environment with other horses. This is an old English tradition. It’s a warning sign immediately recognizable to other riders, allowing them to give you the proper space.
The Takeaway: As a horse owner, you have a responsibility to manage the liability of your horse. Make sure that you’ve done what you can to keep people safe.
Word to the wise: your insurance policy probably won’t cover any theft from the trailer. In other words, if you keep your most expensive tack in your trailer and it gets stolen, you’re up a creek without a paddle.
I was guilty of this for most of my showing years. Growing up competing in the show jumping circuit, we always kept our horses at home and trailered in for every lesson rather than boarding. In hindsight, we were very lucky that we never had any break-ins, because as you know, tack is not cheap!
At Fairway Stables™, we highly recommend that you make a habit of bringing in your more expensive tack such as your saddle. Consider moving it to a locked tack room or inside your house.
The Takeaway: Your general liability insurance likely won’t cover theft from a trailer. Protect your valuables.
Both parties should have a leasing agreement that covers both parties’ interests and will actually hold up in court. Again, freak accidents in leasing scenarios are not typically areas where your general homeowner’s insurance will cover you, as this would be considered a “commercial” endeavor. Make sure your agreement can actually be upheld in court.
If you board your horse at a barn or stables, make sure you have a professionally-drafted boarding agreement. In other words, make sure the facility is professional enough to have an agreement. This is important for many reasons, but most of all, you want to make sure that you and the facility are on the same page about how liability will be allocated if something happens. For example, who is liable if the horse were to get out? What happens if someone gets into the horse’s stall and hurts themselves? Is the boarding facility liable for what happens with the horse during boarding or are you? These are all very important questions to ask. Also, make sure you have a copy of the boarding agreement on hand, just for reference!
The Takeaway: If you board your horse, make sure to keep a copy of the signed boarding agreement.
It’s not uncommon for more than one person to share ownership of a horse. This is especially true when it comes to “investment horses”, such as expensive racehorses, show horses, stud horses, etc. Most of the time, the partnership occurs because one person has the money to pay for the horse, and the other partner actually works with the horse (whether that’s riding, training, breeding, etc).
As an equine attorney, I recognize something that many people do not consider: this type of arrangement is actually a legal partnership, according to the Uniform Partnership Act (UPA). In the same way that you may not realize that the law sees you as a business (technically, a sole proprietor) when you start selling anything from your land (which we cover in depth here), you might be totally unaware that owning a horse with someone makes you a business partner. You can have a partnership, even if you don’t have a partnership agreement.
But don’t worry, it is possible to co-own a horse with someone. You just have to make sure you do it correctly! It’s always best to lead with foresight, so that you can avoid legal disputes later.
The Takeaway: If you co-own a horse with another person, you could have a legal partnership and not even know it. Make sure you have an agreement in place with your co-owner.
If you have your own horse at some point, you’ll likely have friends or family who want to ride. There is nothing wrong with this! You shouldn’t be afraid of letting your friends ride your horse. (Make sure to check out this post on keeping your friends safe around your horses). But, a common question that crosses my desk: should you make them wear helmets?
While everyone knows that helmets keep you safe, we also know that not everyone wants to wear one. So, the simple answer? If you are able to enforce a helmet policy, then yes, you should make the person wear a helmet. This is usually the case in riding lessons, trails rides, etc. In other words, enforce a helmet policy in situations where you are there watching the person ride your horse.
But wait, if you know you shouldn’t have people ride without a helmet, why wouldn’t you require it? To put it simply: if you have a “helmet policy”, but are inconsistent with enforcing it, you could unknowingly set yourself up for negligence claims. Why? Because you fail to uphold a duty that you created for yourself, which contributes to an accident. From an equine law perspective, this is a quick way to bring equine-related liability to your doorstep.
For example, I keep my horses at my stables. My family know that they’re allowed to ride my horses if they ask for my permission first. However, I’m not always outside watching them every second that they’re riding. Honestly, I don’t want to have to police them. If I had a “helmets required” policy and then ignored their helmet usage (or lack thereof), I could get sued for negligence much easier than if I didn’t have that policy. When my family rides my horses, they know that I recommend helmets, but that, at the end of the day, it’s their decision.
When it comes to helmets and riding horses, you need to have a helmet liability release. We go in depth on equestrian liability releases and what they should say here, but your helmet liability release should spell out the dangers that could occur if the rider chooses not to wear a helmet and the risk a person assumes when choosing to ride without a helmet.
While most of the articles you’ll find at Fairway Stables™ will be about the joys of horse ownership, at the end of the day, we are in the Business of Horsemanship™. What does this mean? Our mission at Fairway Stables™ is to help horse owners become the best horse owners they could possibly be, while perfecting the business side of horse ownership. In other words, our mission is to provide you with the basics of equine law that every horse owner needs to know, including the equine liability basics outlined in this article:
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