The Ins and Outs of Boarding Agreements

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If you are boarding horses and still sealing the deal with a handshake, it might be time to consider a written agreement. More and more stables are drawing up legal contracts to protect themselves and help keep relationships with clients running smoothly. A good boarding contract can be lengthy, covering several pages as it describes numerous possible situations. At a minimum, your boarding agreement should cover several basic issues.

Who and Where?

To begin with, the boarding contract should include the printed name, address and telephone number of both the stable and the horse owner. If the stable is a corporation or limited liability company, indicate that in the business name. Otherwise, the business might find itself with a legally useless document. Handwritten telephone numbers and addresses reduce the ability to argue that you couldn’t find someone. The address should include both the mailing address and the physical address, if they are different, of both the horse owner and the stable. If a person has multiple horses, have a separate contract for each.

Photos, Full Disclosure and Exercise

The next section should have a complete description of the horse being boarded. Complete means anything and everything that can help identify the animal. It should all be included. Brands, special marks, its size and color are all important. It is a good idea to attach a picture to help with identification. In fact, a picture might be the only way a person who does not really know the horse will be able to tell two sorrels with a blaze and two white socks each, apart. With regard to socks, it would be wise to indicate in the description on what feet they appear.

Unfortunately, although a description should include all the information about the horse, sometimes it doesn’t. This section should also list any vices the horse might have. It’s possible the horse has a behavior problem, so find out what it is and write it down. It can protect you, your property, other horses and your staff. Point out to the owner that this information could also protect your client in case of an injury or damage. Full disclosure is the best policy.

“The more issues that you anticipate in writing, the less room there will be for dispute.”

How much exercise the horse will get and with whom are important issues. Turn-out seems to often become an issue. The hours the horse is turned out can be easily indicated. More difficult is determining with what other horses. Sometimes horses remind me of children on a playground: There are the bullies, the weaklings, the buddies, the enemies and the cliques and the trick is matching them all up so that all remain safe. The horse owner must provide a complete description of the horse’s personality and how it relates to other horses. It is important to listen to the owner, take all the information collected and develop a workable plan. Then the stable owner needs to watch the horses during their initial time together to see what happens.

Fees and Other Charges

Money is an important part of the agreement. Boarding fees and what they pay for should be clearly spelled out. While “full” board is usually understood, it is best to specify what you mean by the term. Rough board always needs to be clearly defined; in such a situation, the costs of extra items not contained in the rough board fee ought to be itemized so that everyone knows, up front, what they’ll be. Likewise, the costs for special services such as blanketing, exercising, special feeding, handling, etc., need detailed listing.

Covering All the Bases

The contract should also identify who will maintain insurance on the horse and who bears the risk of loss. If it is not defined in the contract, then various local laws will kick in should the horse become injured or died. Relying on local laws could be costly to either the horse owner or the stable operation.

As part of the insurance coverage, the stable should request an indemnity clause from the horse owner in case the horse causes injury to someone or another animal. This clause will not protect the stable from its own possible negligence in handling the horse, but will protect it in situations where the horse, acting as horses sometimes do, causes an accident on its own.

Keeping the Horses Disease-free

Veterinary and health care is another important issue that should be detailed in the contract. Who is going to be responsible for choosing and calling the farrier is a simple question often ignored. Many stables have a preferred farrier. In that situation, who is going to be responsible for the bills??Does the stable pay and allow the the owner to reimburse the operation or does the owner pay the farrier directly? Worming and inoculations of horses should be done at the same time. The stable that inoculates and worms its horses itself knows that proper preventive treatment remains current.

Procedures for emergency situations need to be explicit as well. What is the stable authorized to do should it be unable to reach the horse owner? And who is going to pay for it? These issues need to be defined before the crisis occurs, not during it.

Combined with these health issues are those of vaccines, the Coggins test and health certificates. My view is that the stable should insist that all horses coming onto its property be vaccinated against rabies, have a current Coggins test and a valid health certificate. A quarantine period of one to two weeks is also a good idea. These things provide protection for all the horses at the stable and reduce the chances that the stable will be sued should someone’s horse contract a disease from another.

Check Ownership

Ownership should be guaranteed. It is vital that the contract include a warranty that certifies the client does, in fact, own the horse. It is one way for the stable owner to remain protected in case the new horse turns out to be stolen property.

Holding to Payment Schedules

Managers and stable owners also need to be prepared to deal with clients who don’t pay for services. Though a frustrated stable owner might be tempted to return the horse to the client’s home (not a real option because the stable could be held liable for any damages to horse or property), a clause in the contract stating the horse can be used as lien in the event of nonpayment of the boarding fee will suffice. Although most states permit this by statute, by putting it into the agreement, you do not have to spend time convincing a judge that you have that right. The stable should also state in the document that the horse owner will be liable for attorney’s fees and other legal expenses incurred as a result of enforcing the agreement.

Clearly indicate the amount of notice given to terminate the agreement and to increase charges. Most people do not like surprises in these areas. The issue leads to the question of establishing stable rules. Barn and boarding rules need to be determined and the horse owners must be made aware of the consequences should they refuse to follow the rules (see “And You Thought It Was All ABout Horses” July/Aug. 2000 issue). Some rules to consider include visiting times, whether safety helmets are required and where horses should be tacked up. Indicate where the horse owner can keep equipment for the horse and who is responsible for its safekeeping.

Release Yourself From Liability

The final and possibly the most important component is a release from liability. The stable needs protection should the horse owner become injured while riding at the stable. Yet many boarding agreements don’t contain a release from liability. These releases contain language that varies from state to state, but should be included in any boarding contract. The release should also contain language that is required by your state’s equine liability act, but should also clearly cover situations that arise beyond the scope of those acts.

“Managers and stable owners also need to be prepared to deal with clients who don’t pay for services.”

A handshake agreement is wonderful—until something goes wrong. And even in written contracts, difficulties arise when the problem is outside the scope of the agreement. The more issues that you anticipate in writing, the less room there will be for dispute. If you are tempted to remove an item from your boarding agreement, look at it very carefully to see whether you actually benefit from its removal. For example, not requiring the certificate of health might please customers, but by having horse owners prove their horses are healthy at the time they arrive, you reduce your risk.

One thing the stable owner needs to remember is that no matter how much more knowledgeable he or she might be about horses than an owner, it is still the owner’s horse and the owner is the one who ultimately determines what care is appropriate. Some stables get into trouble with horse owners because the stable decides what is in the best interest of the horse and proceeds without clearing it with the owner. If the stable ignores the owner and decides that Lee Roy Brown (the biggest, baddest horse in town, according to its owner) is safe with Terminator (whose owner says his horse is appropriately named) in turn-out, it might not only lose two boarders but could face a lawsuit for the damage the two horses cause each other.

A boarding contract should protect both owner and stable from surprises and enable the stable to provide the best service that it can to the horses in its care at a controllable cost. Most stables do not make much net profit and whenever a stable can safely reduce its costs, it benefits all of the owners who keep horses at the stable. A well-crafted boarding contract shows the horse community that the stable is concerned with the safety and well-being of all the horses in its care.