A Borrowed Mount

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The riding lesson proceeded uneventfully—that is, until the young student fell off and broke her arm. Months later, the student’s lawyer made a claim against the stable, asserting that it was liable and seeking compensation. Later, upon learning that an independent riding instructor gave the lesson, the lawyer demanded compensation against the instructor. Then, upon learning that the horse from which the student fell was owned by someone else, the lawyer quickly demanded compensation from the horse’s owner.

Stables occasionally use their student’s horses in riding lessons. For the benefit of the stable, riding instructor and horse owner, it helps to know the risks and plan ahead.

The Arrangement

Equine industry professionals (such as stables and riding instructors) sometimes use boarded horses for lessons. This occurs through a variety of arrangements that are formal, informal, and sometimes even illegal. One typical example of a formal arrangement: stables occasionally enter into a lease with boarders through which the stable can use the boarded horse for lessons from time to time in exchange for a reduced board fee.

The Risks

Liability for an injured person:

Liability is, by far, the greatest risk when horses are leased or loaned for lesson use. While the riding instructor who paired the student with the horse might seem to be the prime —and only—target, this is rarely the case as litigation proceeds. Rather, in our litigious society, when people seek legal redress from a horse-related injury, their lawyers will typically direct claims against everyone having a connection to the horse. This means that the owners of the horse blamed in an accident are prime targets—even if they were thousands of miles away when the mishap occurred. The stable on whose property the accident occurred might also become a litigation target, depending on how the accident occurred and applicable law.

Injury to the horse used in the lesson:

With the attention largely directed to liability for injured riders and handlers, people sometimes forget the foreseeable risk that the horse could be injured from the lesson. What if, for example, the instructor allows an inexperienced student to return the sweaty horse to its stall after the lesson, only to find the horse suffering from colic or founder later on. A disgruntled horse owner, faced with massive veterinary bills, might assert a claim of negligence against the instructor or persons believed responsible for causing the injury.

Criminal Liability:

Stables occasionally take liberties with boarded horses by using the horses in the lesson program without the owner’s knowledge, especially when the owner has fallen behind on board payments. Stables that do this without permission could face serious consequences, because the non-permitted use of someone else’s horse could generate criminal charges, such as conversion.

Suggestions for Protection:

With careful planning, the arrangement can be a “win-win” for everyone involved. Here are some ideas:

• Contracts. Everyone benefits from the use of a well-written contract when a stable or instructor uses a non-owned horse in lessons. The contract serves as proof that the stable and/or instructor are permitted to use the horse for certain purposes, such as lessons. The contract can also explain each person’s rights and responsibilities. For example, the contract can discuss: limiting the horse’s use only to certain activities that match the horse’s disposition, physical abilities, and training; the frequency of use; certain requirements (such as use of splint boots and/or bell boots when being worked); whose tack and equipment will be placed on the horse, and who is responsible for maintaining it; who bears responsibility for paying veterinary and farrier fees should the horse become injured or ill through the lesson activity. (For more contract elements, see sidebar.)

• Liability Insurance. Given the potential for liability, proper liability insurance is an important element in the arrangement and deserves advance planning. As noted above, when litigation is brought involving the actions of a horse, plaintiff’s lawyers tend to name every person or entity having a connection to the horse or the incident. The problem is, neither the stable nor the instructor have insurance policies that are automatically designed to protect those who provide horses for their lesson activities. It takes the extra effort of amending the coverage to name the horse owners as “additional named insureds” on the policy to offer this protection. (For a list of key questions and considerations in regard to liability insurance, see the sidebar below.)

• Release of Liability. Where allowed by law, liability releases (also called “waivers”) can offer powerful protection against many types of horse-related liabilities. The problem is, stables and equine professionals rarely use them; when they do, the documents rarely specify and protect other people, such as owners of the horses used in lessons. With careful planning, and where allowed by law, the release can be re-written to name and protect the designated owners of horses used in the lesson program. This is accomplished by adding the names of horse owners along with the name of the stable and the riding instructors in the section of the release where the signer agrees not to sue various entities.

• Equine Activity Liability Acts. As of June 2007, all but four states (California, Maryland, Nevada, and New York) have some form of an equine activity liability act that impacts liabilities in their equine industries in some way. Many of these laws require posting of “warning” signs or require that certain state-specific language be included in contracts and releases. People who provide horses for lessons have every incentive to make sure that the stables and instructors have complied with these laws.

This article is not intended to constitute legal advice. Where questions arise based on specific situations, consult with a knowledgeable attorney.Julie I. Fershtman is an attorney with over 20 years experience who serves the horse industry. She is the author of two books on equine law, has achieved numerous courtroom victories on equine cases, and has drafted hundreds of contracts. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net or www.equinelaw.info.