Equine Emergencies: Who’s In Charge?

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At some time or another, every boarding stable manager faces an equine emergency. A horse starts showing signs of colic, or injures itself in its stall, and the owner cannot be reached. The way you handle such situations is important, since the horse’s health and your liability are at stake.

Most boarding stables have an emergency provision written into the boarding contract. You should carefully consider your policy to determine if you are offering the best protection to boarders and to yourself.

“Stables have a few options when it comes to emergency policies,” says Julie I. Fershtman, Esq., an equine law attorney and author of “Equine Law and Horse Sense.” “I usually recommend the stable ask the horse owner to make an advance arrangement with the horse’s regular veterinarian. The means giving the vet a credit card number to secure payment for services and possibly to discuss what services are authorized.”

Fershtman also recommends that the stable’s boarding contract include authorizations allowing the stable to handle veterinary emergencies if the owner cannot be contacted.

“This avoids the problem of the horse owner complaining about unauthorized charges later on and refusing to pay them,” she says.

For the contract, the owner can designate the stable as his or her agent for procurement of veterinary attention on the owner’s behalf, but not for payment of fees. The contract can also specify that the owner agree to pay all fees that may be incurred in an emergency situation.

“The contract can also give the stable authority to handle emergencies such as colic as the stable sees fit, in its discretion and in consultation with the stable’s attending veterinarian,” says Fershtman. “Over the years, I have seen boarding contracts with variations on this, such as caps on the expenses for which the stable is authorized to arrange.”

However, Fershtman notes that those kinds of provisions can be troublesome if fees cannot be estimated.

“As a result, I avoid those provisions altogether,” she says.

Emergency Contact

Owners can also designate someone as a back-up contact person in case of veterinary or other emergencies. Rebecca Cagle, professional equestrian life coach and boarding stable owner in Knoxville, Tenn., asks boarders to provide her with emergency backups she can call if a horse needs help and the owner is not available.

“I require the owner fill out an emergency contact form similar to the forms required by their child’s school, asking for two or more back-up contacts of their choice who they trust to make important decisions,” she says. Cagle notes that she has had to make use of these backup contacts.

“I once found a broodmare in labor and was unable to contact the owner because she did not have her cell phone with her,” she says. “I used her emergency backup contact, who happened to know where she was. The owner got to the barn in time to see her foal born.”

It’s a good idea to require boarders to provide all the details regarding the name and number of the horse’s regular vet, plus insurance information.

“The stable should receive complete information on the horse’s mortality insurer—the company name, emergency number, and policy number—so stable management can notify the insurer of an emergency if the owner cannot be reached,” says Fershtman. “This is a very important service to the horse owner. Some of my clients put this kind of information on a stall card at the barn, and my trainer clients keep this information in a binder that follows them to shows.”

Some stable owners are willing to go the extra mile during an emergency when the owner cannot be reached. Cathy Virtz, owner of Rockland Breeze Farm in Westminster, Md., has a standard emergency form required for all the horses boarded at her facility. The form includes an agreement granting her the authority to call her regular vet in an emergency when the owner cannot be reached.

“I had a situation one time when a horse caught his hip on a gate latch,” she says. “He ripped his side open about 10 inches and cracked his hip bone. The owner was out of town and unreachable. I called out the barn vet, who instructed me to take the horse to the hospital. Since I couldn’t reach the owner, I had to use my credit card to get the treatment started. I ended paying the entire bill because the horse needed to stay at the hospital for two days, and I still could not reach the owner.”

Several days later, Virtz was able to reach the owner, who paid her back in installment payments.

Providing Treatment

While some barn owners may opt to treat a horse on their own before calling a veterinarian, Fershtman advises against it.

“I prefer that stable management avoid taking matters into their own hands as much as possible,” she says. “They lack intensive veterinary training and are delving into matters that really might call for a trained veterinarian.”

Fershtman notes that she has seen cases where boarding stable owners were sued for administering veterinary care, to the detriment of the horse.

“I’ve worked on a few stable liability matters where the stable wrongly overdosed the horse and caused its demise, where the stable owner injected a horse improperly and caused it to die, and where the stable manager was accused of undertaking the wrong protocol by tending to the horse herself when the horse’s condition really called for immediate veterinary intervention,” she says.

Ultimately, the best way to protect both the horse and the stable is to have an agreement in writing that spells out the emergency provisions at your barn.

“The stable wants to avoid a claim of negligent care of a horse in its care, custody, or control,” says Fershtman. “By following the terms of the contract—especially a contract that allows the stable reasonable discretion—you have helped reduce your risk.”