Anyone who has owned a horse can appreciate the many risks that come along with horse ownership. There are relationships to manage – with veterinarians, farriers, coaches, boarders, property owners, insurers, and neighbours. Equine law covers many legal subjects, including contracts, liabilities (negligence, nuisance, personal injuries), insurance questions, and even employment law.
If you are going to own, ride, train or work with horses or riders, you should have a good understanding of how the law reacts to the many issues that can arise.
Buying and selling horses
Some people are of the mistaken belief that the “buyer beware” rule applies to the sale of a horse. This is not true. Sellers can get into trouble if they do not disclose information regarding a horse advertised for sale, particularly if the buyer has made it known that they are looking for certain qualities in an animal. For example, if a buyer states that they are looking for a “reliable packer” for a relatively inexperienced rider, selling them a green, mildly hot youngster could result in legal liability in the event the buyer is later unhappy or worse, injured.
Other sellers believe that if the buyer obtains and accepts a pre-purchase exam, then the sale would be irreversible should it later be discovered the horse had a soundness issue that did not show up in the exam. This is also not necessarily true. For example, if the seller is aware of an unsoundness but does not fully disclose their health history, the seller can be liable should it later be determined that the unsoundness must have been evident prior to the sale, even if the pre-purchase exam did not discover it.
The best approach when buying or selling a horse is to document the terms in a written agreement. Equestrian Canada has published a useful Best Practices Guide to Buying and Selling a Horse.
Some owners need to move a horse on but don’t want to sell, so they look for someone to lease. Others would love to own a horse but are not ready for the expense or commitment, so they look for an owner that is willing to lease or “share” a horse. These arrangements can work for many people, but the so-called “half-lease” can also lead to misunderstanding and argument. Legally there is no such thing as a “half-lease,” but should you let a person “use” your horse on a part-time basis, it is essential that the accountabilities of each party are spelled out in writing.
Before entering into a lease arrangement, think through all the possible sources of misunderstanding and iron out details in a written agreement. The owner has a legal duty to ensure the horse is suitable to perform the work for which it is being leased. For example, if the person wanting to lease your horse states they want to use the horse for trail riding, the owner must take care to ensure that the horse is a willing hack.
While Courts have recognized that there is an element of risk inherent in horseback riding, operators of riding facilities have been held responsible to take precautions to prevent injury. Courts have held that trail guides have a responsibility to keep proper care of horses during a ride, and to ensure that the ride is under control. Further, operators must consider the experience level of riders. In a recent case, an operator was found to have breached his duty of care in allowing a rider to rent a horse that she had difficulty mounting, and in failing to ensure that his guide knew how to provide proper assistance to the rider in mounting and dismounting.
Horse owners are not liable for a rider’s injuries just because the rider fell off, as it is generally accepted that riding can be risky business. However, owners are responsible to provide a horse that can do the job intended.
On the other hand, the person leasing the horse also has legal duties. They must take ordinary and reasonable care of the horse, and if the horse is injured while in their care, the lessor must be able to show that the injury was not due to a failure to take reasonable care. People accepting the privilege of a loaned horse without charge and entirely for their own benefit need to be especially careful and take all reasonable measures to ensure the horse stays healthy and sound.
The best way to protect yourself, whether you are the owner or the lessor, is to have a clear and well-written leasing agreement. A lawyer with equine experience is the best choice, but you can also do it yourself. Be sure to cover these important points:
- The full names and contact information of both parties;
- A description of the horse, including as much detail about the horse as you have, including any official registration numbers;
- The purpose of the lease and permitted use of the horse;
- Payment details including responsibility for lease fees, board, veterinary expenses, farrier, etc.;
- The term of the lease (i.e. how long it will last);
- Risk of loss – who is responsible if the horse or a person is injured;
- Location of the horse;
- Whether the horse is permitted to be used in competition;
- Instructions specific to the use of the horse including riders, farriers, trainers, turnout, special instructions;
- Insurance; and
- Termination of the agreement in situations of unsoundness, default in payment, etc.
Accidents involving horses
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the horse world, you have likely seen or experienced a horse-related accident. If a person or horse is injured because of an interaction with a horse, the owner is not automatically liable. The law must find fault, as that word is understood by courts. There are some common scenarios that can lead to fault:
- If your horse has a dangerous habit, such as kicking or biting, you must warn people about the dangerous behavior. This is why we see red ribbons tied in tails of kickers.
- If you ride or handle a horse in a way that is negligent, and the horse or a person is injured as a result, you might be liable. For example, if a rider runs into another horse in a crowded warm-up arena because the rider is on their cell phone, they could be liable for any mishap that ensues.
- If a horse owner fails to properly latch a stall door or keep good fences and a horse gets loose onto a road and causes an accident, the owner could be liable. In a recent Alberta case, the Court found the owner of a ranch liable for failing to properly fence in his approximately 30 horses. The horses escaped the owner’s property, entering the road and plaintiff’s property. As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbours.
In a recent Saskatchewan case, the Court found a dog owner liable for an injury sustained to a horse owned by the plaintiff. Dogs owned by the defendant chased after the horse, causing the horse to break its leg. This injury resulted in the horse being put down. The Court awarded damages of $7,800.00 for the replacement value of the horse.
Insurance for equine-related activities
Anyone involved with horses on more than a passing recreational basis should consider whether they should purchase liability insurance. Most provincial equestrian organizations offer a limited amount of insurance protection as a membership benefit, but equine professionals who are earning a living as coaches, trainers, or stable operators, should understand the limitations of this type of coverage and, in most cases, they should purchase additional liability insurance.
For example, the Nova Scotia Equestrian Federation includes automatic insurance coverage for members, but it is limited to personal liability insurance for people involved in “non-commercial” equine related activities. If you decide to offer lessons or coach other riders and accept payment for your services, your individual insurance won’t help you if you are sued for a horse-related accident. If you lease your horse, it could also be considered commercial use which is not covered by your membership insurance.
As a lawyer who is also a horse owner, I know that horse people tend to want to keep their money for horse-related expenses rather than expend dollars on legal advice and insurance. However, horses, being the huge and somewhat unpredictable animals that they are, can cause devastating injuries and serious property damage when things go wrong. Getting sued is the wrong time to consider whether you have taken appropriate steps to reduce the risks associated with sharing your life with a horse.