Laying Down the Law: Don’t Leave Your Equine Career Vulnerable
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Originally published on Horse Nation.
Launching into a professional equestrian career feels a lot like getting baptized by fire. The successful people who do it pour their fair share of blood, sweat and tears into making it happen.
Why are stable owners, trainers and other equestrian professionals leaving their hard-earned careers legally vulnerable? Mostly because the legal aspect of their business is an oversight or complete afterthought. Or at the end of a long day in the barn, they’re too exhausted to check one more thing off the startup checklist.
Many equestrian professionals will make a concerted effort to seek help from a professional to protect their business, assets, and write contracts. But unless their legal support system is a licensed attorney in their state of residence with a background in the horse industry, the equestrian may not be as protected as they think.
The first question most equestrian attorneys hear is, “How do I know it’s time to hire a lawyer?” The answer is simple - immediately.
Equine lawyers assist in every aspect of equestrian businesses and it’s important to include them from the very beginning because of the type of assets these businesses have, like horses.
In terms of assets, horses are a unique type. Under law, they are considered property, much like a farm truck, investment or tractor. They do not receive the same legal protections as a human (even though they are our babies!) and can easily pass to the wrong person or place in the event the unthinkable should happen. The risk of your horse “property” moving into the wrong hands after a tragedy is especially high when the proper protection isn’t in place.
So, who could benefit from an equine lawyer? Trainers, riders, stable owners, vets, farriers, and pretty much any association that manages anything equine.
Basically, when money is changing hands, or horses and humans are stepping onto your property - it’s a good idea to get started with an equine lawyer.
We all know accidents can happen at any time, horses can get injured, riders can get hurt and simple sales can quickly dissolve into ugly contract disputes.
So I asked Erin Prutow, an equestrian lawyer, what are the top three most important things to consider when legally protecting your equine business? This is what she said:
What will happen to your horses in a barn if you have to be away unexpectedly for a long period of time? Or worse, pass on? We hate to think about it, but you want the best for your horses and barn no matter what happens. That’s where estate planning comes in.
When it comes to equestrians, there are many details that general attorneys may overlook. For example, while you may consider your horses and pets to be members of your family, horses are considered property under the eyes of the law. You may want them to be treated like members of the family, and that's something that needs to be sorted out and properly documented. Who will pay for care, take care of the horses, and any specifics in terms of care?
Effective estate planning documents require careful consideration of tax impacts, inheritance goals for your family, and instructions for end of life medical care. Using a templated form or a general lawyer won’t take into account the individual needs of your horses, barn, or business.
Planning for the future and the unknown can be overwhelming, and estate planning is not a set-it-and-forget-it service. An equestrian attorney who specializes in estate planning can walk you through the process and provide the proper protection for your beloved horses and other assets. When you know you are legally protected, you can relax and enjoy the time you have with your horses!
Your barn community can feel like family, but when your business is at stake, you need to make sure you’re legally protected. Liability waivers, boarding agreements, and training agreements will layout expectations for your clients and protect you in the event of an accident or dispute.
For example, let’s look at a lease agreement permitting a rider to lease one of your horses.
You may have successfully ridden and cared for your horse without soundness issues for years. However, a pre-sale medical evaluation revealed tendon issues, something you were unaware of until that moment. You, the owner, made a verbal warranty to the person leasing that if the tendon injuries cause soundness injuries during the lease term, they would be able to terminate the contract and get out of the lease. These verbal warranties were left out of the contract terms and sure enough, two weeks into the lease, the horse went lame due to the pre-existing tendon issues. You could easily refuse to terminate the lease agreement and attempted to hold the leasing party responsible for the full contracted time of the horse. But, this situation causes heartache and more legal expenses than either of you possible imagined. Instead, avoid these situations completely by including an equine attorney prior to executing the agreement - whether you’re the owner or the one looking to lease. Your attorney will review the pre-purchase evaluation, disclose the risks to both parties and contract the precise terms into the agreement to protect both parties.
A lot of successful contracting is not geared to overcomplicate or trick either party--but to lay out expectations clearly and mitigate risk by exploring various possibilities.
It’s in your best interest to hire an equine lawyer that knows the industry to work with the buyer, seller, trainer, and veterinarian to ensure all parties are aware of their legal rights and obligations throughout the leasing, buying, and selling processes. Whether it is a lameness issue, colic, behavioral issues, training issues, show nerves, suitability, inflammation—these things, and often more, need to be addressed in any equine transaction.
When it comes to sales, the most frequent mistake is that sellers recycle old sales agreements or a template found online. These agreements are often out of date, don’t take into account individual needs, and may not protect either party in the event of a breach of contract. The more that can be addressed and documented up front, the less likely a dispute arises later.
Even with a seemingly healthy horse, you are making a big investment. For a few hundred dollars the seller and buyer can reduce the risk of future disputes with proper legal protections.
What Happens if There’s an Accident on Your Property?
Equine activities are inherently dangerous. Whether you are a Grand Prix jumper or western trail riding, horseback riding is viewed as a high-risk activity in the eyes of the law. Accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere - even to the best, most careful equestrians.
We’ve all seen and probably signed the waivers stables provide, but should there be more paperwork? Did you even read what you were signing?
If you’ve hired workers, you also must take into account that some people could get hurt on the job as well. Farm work is dangerous and should be carried out properly.
What if one of your most diligent workers gets kicked by a sour mare (probably a chestnut) while mucking out stalls? As the business owner, are you responsible for paying medical costs relating to this worker’s injury?
As with many areas of the law, it depends. You may be responsible for worker’s compensation depending on how your business is classified (not just how you think it is classified). If they’re an independent contractor, you can require them to have their own insurance. As an employee, they would rely on your insurance policy to cover them.
But even with the waivers and proper insurance in place, people may still take legal action against you. Having an equine lawyer with you each step of the way will help you protect your assets and make the process easier to manage.
If there’s anything you take away from this article it’s this: hiring a professional equestrian lawyer is just as important as making sure the electric fence is turned on in the pasture. Accidents happen, people back out of contracts, and important figures in the business could pass on--an equestrian professional can serve as a valuable resource for any of these issues. It’s never too early to get started with an attorney for your equine business, especially one who has experience in the industry. We’re excited to have Erin on our team to help clients get their ducks in a row, because their businesses are more than a tax ID number - they’re livelihoods.
We’re here to help them protect that.