For this article we visited with someone who has unusual credentials: Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD. She is not only a veterinarian and attorney, but she specializes in consulting work with veterinarians nationwide. Some of her insights from her years of experience as an equine veterinarian and attorney can help us as farm and stable owners and managers better understand the legal trends that are emerging in our industry.
Lacroix is the owner and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors. Included in the issues for which she provides solutions for veterinarians and veterinary practices are many that owners and managers of farms and stables face. It might be good for you to discuss some of these issues with your attorney and/or CPA:
- Negotiate all aspects of employment relationships, including compensation, benefits, non-competes, options and retention provisions;
- Form, grow and facilitate veterinary partnerships, including specialty and multi-specialty ventures;
- Prepare veterinary practices for the day the founder(s) retire and for the next generation of veterinarians;
- Settle disagreements among partners, or between practice owners and associates and/or staff;
- Buy, sell, lease, merge and split veterinary practices;
- Lease or sublease space, including sharing premises among two or more practices;
- Select and organize the best business entity for their practice;
- Work through all aspects of the employment and independent contractor relationships;
- Rectify veterinary malpractice and state board proceedings and settlements, including providing expert opinions and serving as expert witness;
- Human resources issues, including employee manuals, HR audits, hiring/firing, performance evaluations.
Based on the information from two recent surveys conducted by Stable Management, we know that like many veterinary businesses, we have an aging ownership of the equine farms and stables today. Therefore the management of businesses and properties and the transfer to the next generation also applies to our side of the industry.
While we know that older women are the backbone of the general horse-owning population based on many other surveys, our salary survey showed that 30.5% were over 60 years of age. Another 36% are in the previous decade of their lives (51-60 years old). With this aging ownership, there might well be opportunities for younger people to apprentice and perhaps partner with these older farm and stable owners, enabling them to potentially take over those businesses someday. It also might mean that those older women with disposable incomes are returning to the horse industry for which they longed in their younger years.
Here are some questions posed to Lacroix and her responses.
What are the most common risks that an equine farm or stable would face today? What are best ways a stable owner, trainer, manager or rider can mitigate the risks that are inherently out there in the equine world?
Typically legal problems are related to injuries to people. That’s most problematic when injuries happen to bystanders or children. Riders usually assume risks, but that doesn’t mean they won’t sue. Or it might involve injuries that one horse inflicts on another horse, whether it’s a horse running loose or one in a paddock. That might be more of a problem for people who run stables. You need to have good horsemanship skills to avoid those problems.
There also are financial problems that occur, particularly with recession, such as non-payment of board, vet bills or the farrier as well as non-payment to the stable owner. For example, you might decide to medicate a horse with phenylbutazone (“Bute”) or antibiotics or other anti-inflammatories. Trainers or managers typically don’t call an owner every time they medicate a horse. They do what needs to be done and bill the owner.
But, problems can arise because of a lack of communication. When you are working in an agrarian society, they understand horses get hurt and they (owners) don’t want to be called for every bump and minor injury. But the challenge is that people who own horses today weren’t raised on a farm and don’t understand how these things work. That requires a greater degree of communication (and often documentation) by stable owners and trainers.
If I’m a seasoned owner and you give my horse Bute because he bumped his knee, I would say thank you. If I’m not from that background I might have wanted more information or input, and I might not want to pay the cost.
What would you recommend as standard practices for farm or stable owners and managers to keep themselves in good legal standing? This might include contracts with boarders and trainers, dealing with service persons (such as vets and farriers), recordkeeping, zoning or other property issues.
Some of these things will help limit risks, which is certainly the way the world is going. When I was an equine practitioners there weren’t many boarding contracts. If there were contracts, they were only a page long. It’s probably prudent that stable owners get contracts that are tailored to their circumstances to mitigate their specific risks.
If I own the stable and the owner does all the work and deals with the farrier and vet, that is totally different than if my staff takes care of everything—the grooming, feeding and treatments and has the horse ready for you to ride.
Contracts aren’t “one size fits all.” If you don’t have a contract specifically for your set of circumstances, then you might as well not have a contract. Risks that need to be mitigated will vary from operation-to-operation.
People are a little naive in that regard. They think contracts are plug and play. Think of it like you would horses; you can’t plug one in for another. If you get off one horse and get on another, it won’t be exactly the same ride. Yet the two horses share a lot in common.
Contracts set a stage to discuss the issues. When you agree about what happens in certain situations on when things are going well, then when something goes wrong and there’s a dispute, you both know where you stand.
Litigation is what you want to avoid because lawyers ant trials cost a lot of money.
Another thing I would recommend is to have a deposit…maybe a two-month deposit or an advance on routine veterinary bills for the year.
If I were a stable owner I would figure out how much it cost to vaccinate horses and get an advance on that if I was responsible for the veterinary bill.
When taking a new boarder or finding a new boarding farm, I would definitely get references, whether you are the stable or horse owner.
Also, what happens when the owner isn’t available and the horse is sick or injured?
We’ve created an “agency letter” for some of our clients. This is a letter between the horse and stable owner so the stable owner can act in best interest and welfare of the horse. This allows the stable owner or manager to call out the vet on a colic so the horse can be treated with assurance the vet will get paid. This preserves the important reliance and trust between the stable manager or owner and the veterinarian.
Keeping your vet/stable relationship healthy and trustworthy is important. You don’t want to have an emergency and need a vet when the bills from your stable haven’t been paid.
I also want to mention insurance: Make sure you have proper insurance and you know what it covers.
Also, do you have a back-up plan? If you are running the stable and something happens to you, who can step in?
Anything else you might think of regarding legal trends in the equine industry?
Recordkeeping is important to everyone. Every stable owner should have a file on each owner and each horse. For example, do you have a complete vaccination history on each horse that is kept up-to-date?
For those thinking of opening a stable, zoning and property issues would come into effect.
Animal welfare is becoming more important today. Society as a whole is more sensitive to animal welfare and the condition of stabling, feed, bedding and drug use in show industry. The detection of drugs that are and are not permissible during shows can reflect on you and your stable. Keep up with what is legal and not legal in your industry, and make sure that there is proper standard of care at your farm or stable.
For example, if you have straw that smells like urine and water standing in the stall, it needs to be cleaned.