Getting It in Writing

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Hanna the horse owner just returned from a two-week dream vacation out of the country, and the first thing she did was head straight for the boarding stable to see her beloved horse. But the stall was empty. The stable manager gave Hanna the shocking news that her horse colicked the day she left, and the stable’s veterinarian recommended costly surgery immediately. Because the stable manager could not reach Hanna to get her consent, the horse was put down.

Later, Hanna received another shock: The equine mortality insurance company that insured her horse would not pay her claim because it found her in direct violation of the policy’s requirement of giving proper and timely notice of the horse’s illness and death.

The boarding stable had no boarding contract and no release. Now, with no horse and no insurance payment, Hanna is exploring whether she can bring a lawsuit against the stable.

Well-drafted, consistently executed contracts not only protect the stable but in many ways also protect the horse owner, too, and prevent misunderstandings. In the scenario above, good paperwork might have spared this horse’s life or, at a minimum, allowed the horse owner to collect thousands of dollars on her mortality insurance claim.

This article explores elements of a well-written boarding contract.

Why Insist on Written Contracts?

Many kinds of verbal contracts can be enforced. The problem is, when nothing is in writing, each party to the contract often has a completely different understanding of the same agreement’s terms. When these differences take center stage in a court of law, the question becomes whom to believe. As a result, the outcome of a verbal contract dispute is never certain. Three things are guaranteed, however, if the verbal contract dispute turns into a lawsuit: resolving it will neither be easy, quick, nor cheap. A carefully-worded written contract is an excellent way to help avoid disputes and avoid the tremendous expense, time, and aggravation that litigation usually brings.

Starting Points for the Basic Contract

At the most basic level, the boarding contract can address standard services and fees, such as:

  • Feeding and watering—How often will the stable provide this, and what types of feed, if any, will the stable give?
  • Turnout—Will the stable provide it? If so, how often, and will the horse receive an individual paddock or be placed with a group?
  • Payment—What are the stable’s boarding fees and side charges, if any?
  • Who—stable or boarder—must arrange and pay for routine veterinary and farrier services?

Details That Can Make the Difference

  • Details beyond the basics above give boarding contracts clarity—and power. They can provide added benefits for both the stable and the boarder and are a good way to get the rules of the barn in writing. Some details include:
  • Emergencies and authorization. The scenario at the beginning of this article could have been prevented if a boarding contract allowed boarders to authorize the stable to handle emergencies by summoning a veterinarian on the owner’s behalf and arranging services if the owner cannot be reached. (Make sure early on that your veterinarian will accept these authorizations and will allow the stable to make decisions for the owner.) For the stable’s protection, the contract can affirm that the stable is acting as the owner’s agent to procure, but not to pay for, the service. Some owners might want the contract to designate another person who can help the stable make quick decisions if an emergency arises.
  • Stable-wide equine health programs. Stables and owners have every incentive to agree on inoculation and deworming programs and schedules that all boarded horses are expected to follow. These programs promote the well-being and health of all horses at the stable. As an example, the contract can specify that the stable’s regular attending veterinarian will inoculate all boarded horses on the same date and that management will deworm regularly, with a schedule and notice provided to the owner in advance. As another example, the contract can allow the stable to post recommended schedules for dewormings and inoculations with which all owners must comply by making their own arrangements for their horses.
  • Policies regarding visiting dogs. A common source of injuries at horse stables is not necessarily the horses—it is dogs on the premises. Boarding contracts provide an excellent opportunity for stables to announce their policies regarding visiting dogs. For example, some stables, fed up with canine visitors who break away and chase horses around the arenas, bar visiting dogs from the premises. Other stables provide dog runs and holding areas for the boarders’ convenience while owners visit and spend time with their horses.

Legal Fine Points

State laws can have a direct impact on boarding contracts. Here are a few examples of laws that differ. These differences are among the many reasons why stables should be wary of form contracts that purport to work in all states.

  • Liability release language. Most states will enforce liability releases, if they are properly drafted and executed. Boarding stables that shun releases and release clauses are missing out on a powerful opportunity to limit their liability. Note that states vary on how releases should be worded. Also, keep in mind that a release does not eliminate the need for proper insurance.
  • Equine Activity Liability Act Language. As of January 2006, 46 states have laws that are designed to, in various ways, limit or control equine liabilities. Many of the laws require “equine professionals” (and a boarding stable usually qualifies) to include a special “warning” or other language in their contracts and releases. National form contracts run a serious risk of failing to include this language.
  • Interest on unpaid balances. It pays for stables to plan ahead with contract language that offers disincentives to boarders who fail or refuse to pay. State laws vary on the highest interest rate allowable. This is yet another reason to watch out for national form contracts, as some contain illegally high, and unenforceable, rates.
  • Attorney fees. Boarding stables usually find it pointless to hire lawyers to chase down non-paying boarders as the legal expense can exceed the debt. Boarders might think twice before leaving the stable unpaid, however, if the boarding contract specifies the stable’s right to recover its legal fees if it must take legal action.

Insured Horses

Should stable managers care that a boarded horse is insured? Definitely.

If a boarded horse is insured through a policy of equine insurance such as mortality and major medical, its owner has every incentive to insist that the stable keep the equine insurer’s name and emergency telephone number. This is especially true because these insurance policies often require that the insurer or its authorized representative receive “immediate” notice when the insured horse becomes injured or ill. In fact, insurance companies give each insured horse owner an emergency telephone number which the owner must call if the horse becomes injured or ill, and the companies expect these calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Insurers, upon receiving the notice call, can do several different things, such as consult with the attending veterinarian, order a new course of treatment, get a second opinion, consent to have the horse put down, or order an immediate post-mortem examination. If the insurance company fails to receive proper or timely notice of an insured horse’s health problem, it might have valid legal grounds to deny the claim and pay nothing.

Boarding stables are sometimes in the best position to give insurers notice on the boarder’s behalf. By having insurance information, stables can prevent the scenario at the beginning of this article—where the insurer denied the claim because it received no notice from the stable or the owner until two weeks after the horse’s demise. Stables can include within their boarding contracts information regarding equine insurance, and they can keep the information readily available for stable staff in case the information must be used. —JF