Who's in Charge When He Gets Hurt?

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In the blink of an equine eye “What if?” can become “Now what?” Now’s a good time to review your policies and paperwork in the event that a horse gets hurt or injured and you can’t reach the owner—she’s on a flight to Europe, scuba diving off an island or in an area without good cell phone coverage.

The Basics Matter

The lengths to which you go during an equine medical emergency may vary, depending upon the level of care coordination you already offer. If owners accept that you always call the shots about veterinary care, shoeing and feed, then they’ll be more comfortable in an emergency when you do the same. If your participation is more hands off, then it’s critical your paperwork be squeaky clean, and seeking legal advice for any gray areas is always a good plan.

Some pro-active owners will take the time and care, doing the research or legal legwork, and hand you a letter that spells out their wishes in detail. Those self-starters are the exception, and all too often the problem will land squarely in your lap.

If you feel your contract needs some improvement in this area, consider these suggestions that have worked well for your fellow trainers. You might even develop a “heroic protocol” or “heroic measures” form, a separate document that spells out all possible scenarios.

Communication Is Key

Hopefully, you establish and maintain good two-way communication. A general rule is that when owners are away, you require they share an itinerary with travel contact information. Also, ask that they disclose anything that’s happened medically in the past few weeks that could become an issue, i.e., “He has a funny scratch on his right hind.” “He bucked really hard in turnout and has been a little ‘ouchy.’” You really can’t have too much information.

When You’re “It”

If an incident occurs, your contract language should say that you’ll do your reasonable best to locate the owner during and after the incident, even if it’s minor.

Do not guess or assume. Make sure you are designated, in writing, to do all this: A limited power of attorney (POA) is best. In your files, and also posted on the horse’s stall, you can record all current owner phone numbers. You can also record names of one or more proxies named by the owner as “emergency contacts,” in case the owner is unavailable. In addition, you should have the horse’s insurance carrier and phone number, and the preferred veterinarians, first and second choices. This information should be updated twice a year with boarders.

But, first and foremost, you should have the authority to seek the required professional help the horse needs. Your contract can state that you’ll call the veterinarian the owner has specified, but if that vet is unavailable, you have the authority to call in another.

Owners must agree to this in writing and if they insist upon their own veterinarian—and not one you use—these clients should sign a release or waiver saying they absolve the barn owner of any responsibility if that veterinarian cannot be reached. Also ask owners if they require a second opinion before life-or-death decisions are made, and then record that information.

In your contract, the owner may set a dollar limit on emergency care or treatment if the situation isn’t covered by the horse’s insurance—or even if it is. And owners should already have provided a credit card or verified line of credit to the veterinary clinic.

The owner may also state, for example, that the horse isn’t a good candidate for colic surgery—meaning if a potentially fatal colic occurs, euthanasia is in order. This information should be part of the barn file. In other words, make sure you and your client are on the same page when it comes to the horse’s care.

The Worst Case

“Everyone usually has the horse’s best interest in mind,” observes equine attorney Rachel Kosmal McCart of Equine Legal Solutions. “My clients [equine professionals] are more worried about the horse not getting the care it needs or it getting the care and the owner not wanting to pay for it.” Which is why Kosmal McCart emphasizes that a good contract, that spells out the level of care desired, is in each horse’s file.

And please don’t avoid the euthanasia subject, Kosmal McCart advises. She suggests including a clause in your contract that says, “I understand the horse may die at this facility, or may require euthanasia. I agree to pay the associated expenses.” Those associated expenses can run as high as $1,500 to $2,000, for euthanasia and disposal.

And, here again, make sure you know what the owners’ wishes are. “As a trainer, you should be legally able to do what’s most appropriate under the trying circumstances. But you don’t want an owner to return to find her horse has been cremated when she wanted a burial,” Kosmal McCart says.

Diligent Reporting

Finally, “minor” can sometimes morph into “major” so most barn owners agree that reporting all incidents during the owners’ absence is a good idea. Even a “small” occurrence, such as the horse unfastening his stall latch and running rampant, or a horse “flipping out” while being blanketed, could have repercussions later. Owners do deserve to know all, and your full disclosure will serve to remind them that you are an attentive and conscientious barn owner.