Horse Boarding: A Meeting of the Minds

Horse Boarding: A Meeting of the Minds

 

by Konrad L. Trope
Centurion Law Group

Contracts regarding equine-related activities have their own peculiar clauses and covenants. Nevertheless, basic principles of contract law do apply when leasing a stall or boarding a horse at a horse facility.

It is important to recognize that a contract can exist by a series of writings. A formal agreement is not necessarily required, but is highly recommended.

Here’s an example: You sign a contract that states your board will be $250 per month. Later, the barn manager, with whom you are friendly, mentions you can work off your board by cleaning stalls at $2 per stall. You work diligently all month, erasing the entire board bill by cleaning 125 stalls. You do the same the next month. However, the contract that you signed gives the barn the right to sell your horse if the board is not paid for 60 days.

You then get into a typical boarding-barn squabble with the barn manager after you find your tack being used on school horses without your permission. The next day, your horse is gone. Turns out the barn manager told the barn owner you never paid your board, and he gave her permission to take the horse to auction. The law is not on your side in this scenario. What will you bring into court as proof you did not default on the board? You have nothing.

Everybody claims to have the best of intentions when an agreement is initially reached between two parties. However, memories amazingly change once a dispute arises, creating a problem of proof should one party or the other decide to sue for breach of contract in a court of law.

Second, I have found that there are many industries where people claim that they should be able to do business on a handshake and not have to resort to written agreements. While that is a wonderful endorsement for the human race, if such an endorsement were true, I and the rest of my fellow attorneys would be out of work. I hate to sound cynical, but it has been my experience practicing law for almost 30 years that the people who say there is no need for a written contract are the very people with whom:

(a) If you choose to do business with them, you will find that you need a contract in writing, or;
(b) You should stay as far away from as possible.

Anyone who is not willing to set forth the terms and conditions of an agreement in writing is someone who really should not be trusted. This applies not just to contracts in the equine industry, but contracts in any industry, business, or trade.

Contracts should reflect what the law calls a “meeting of the minds.” Therefore, rather than trying to sound lawyer-like, it is best to sit down and figure out what your objectives are for entering into a boarding agreement. This requires careful reflection, because what you need to do is think about what you, as a customer receiving these boarding services, expect the service provider (the boarding facility) to provide to you and your horse. So, I recommend that you sit down with a piece of paper and pen or a computer and type up a list of your desires and/or expectations. Some of these might include, but not be limited to:

1. The number of times a day your horse is to be fed.
2. The kind of feed and quantity your horse is to be fed. Is grain included? What kind? What type of hay is included? How many flakes daily? Are any supplements included? Is salt provided?
3. What type of stall, paddock or pasture is your horse going to be kept in? What type of fence is acceptable for paddock or pasture areas? Thought needs to be given to size as well as the materials needed to construct the stall. Some horses, for instance, do not react well to being in pipe corrals where they don’t feel protected from the horse next to them, and may react by biting and kicking defensively, which can injure themselves and the neighboring horse.
4. What kind of bedding is used, how deep is the bedding and how often is fresh bedding added? This is an important question because your horse may have allergies to certain types of bedding. Moreover, some facilities do not provide bedding at all and expect horse owners to provide that at their own expense if it is desired.
5. Is daily turnout included for stalled horses or is it the responsibility of the owner? If the facility provides turnout, how long will your horse go outside and will it be private turnout or with a group? Do the turnouts have shelter from the elements, and are those shelters adequate for the number of horses turned out at one time? Or are horses brought inside in bad weather?
6. Is blanketing and blanket removal included, the responsibility of the owner, or charged as an additional fee?
7. Are services like lunging and riding available if desired? If so, what is the cost and who performs those services? What are their qualifications?
8. Can you continue to use any veterinarian or farrier that you desire, or does the barn mandate the use of their preferred professionals?
9. Are vaccinations required before new horses move into the barn? Does the barn quarantine new arrivals to protect your horse from disease?
10. Is deworming up to the barn and is every horse mandated to be on the barn’s schedule, or is it the responsibility of the individual animal owner?

The above is not an exhaustive list of services you might want from your boarding facility. Nevertheless, you also need to think about “what-if” questions:

1. What if my horse is turned out with other horses? How will the boarding facility ensure that my horse gets along with the other horses and is not subject to injury? If my horse is injured by another horse, will I be responsible for the veterinary bill or will that be the responsibility of the other horse owner or of the facility? What if it is my horse who injures another horse?
2. What if the boarding facility has dogs or other pets running around loose? How does the boarding facility ensure that my horse will not be chased, spooked or bitten?
3. What if my horse becomes ill or is injured? What steps will the facility take to attend to my horse’s injuries or illness?
4. Will I be promptly notified of any injury or illness? Does the facility have a veterinarian on the premises or one that will come to the facility, or will my horse have to be trailered to the veterinarian? If my horse must be trailered, is there someone always available at the facility, if I either do not have my own truck and trailer, or may not always be available?
5. Will I be held liable for damage my horse causes to the facility, like chewing wood, breaking through fences, or breaking feeders or watering troughs?
6. What does the facility do to ensure my horse will not get loose or escape from the property?
7. What steps are in place regarding security? Does someone live on the premises? Is a night check performed? Is there a perimeter fence with a gate that is locked overnight? Are there security cameras? What documentation is needed to pick up a horse from the facility if the hauler is not the owner and the owner is not present?

You, as the boarding party, need to think about various kinds of situations that might arise and how you want the boarding facility to respond. For example, some people may demand that they be called immediately if their horse needs a vet so that they can call their own vet; others are comfortable with the boarding facility calling a vet of their choosing and just letting them know of the incident and forwarding them the bill.

You as the boarder need to give some thought to what level of communication and the form of communication you want with the boarding facility. Are you most easily reached by phone? Text? E-mail? If you cannot be reached, who else can the barn call to either find you or to authorize how the situation with your horse should be handled?

Most horse owners view their horses as children. Therefore you need to act like a parent, and a very protective parent, because unlike children who might be able to articulate their needs, your horse cannot articulate its needs to the boarding facility. You must be an advocate for your horse’s needs and you need to communicate those needs, wants or desires clearly to the boarding facility. Be aware, however, that to the extent that you request more services or greater levels of care, it is going to cost you more money. As the boarder, you have to consider whether what you are requesting will fit within your budget.

The next concept to be aware of is that the boarding facility is going to have its own wish list of what it expects from its clients or customers, as well as its own concerns about dealing with “what-if” questions. For instance, most facilities will not want to be liable for mere acts of negligence: accidentally forgetting to feed the horse as directed, accidentally leaving a gate unlocked, etc. In fact, most facilities will absolutely require this clause, as nobody wants to be liable for mere lapses.

There are ways to narrow the scope to define levels of negligence. For instance, it is one thing if someone accidentally leaves a gate open, and it’s another thing if an aggressive dog is allowed to roam the premises, biting and chasing the horses. The former act might be viewed as mere negligence, while the latter act might be viewed as gross negligence. You need to read carefully what kind of release or waiver from liability your boarding facility is asking you to sign in terms of coming to an agreement and mutual understanding.

If you feel you do not understand the terms fully, I highly recommend reviewing it with an attorney. Yes, this will cost money – but how much is your horse worth to you, both in dollars and cents and in emotional value? Don’t sign a contract that you don’t understand, or that you suspect is not really fair.

While it is a terrible thing to consider, one must accept the fact that accidents do happen and that it is up to you to take all precautions to ensure that such accidents do not happen involving your horse. That’s why it is not enough to just look at a contract or try to draft one up with the boarding facility. You need to check out the boarding facility’s track record in terms of its reputation, as well as perform your own visual inspection of the facility and personally interview the owner and staff.

Finally, you should ask if the facility what kinds of insurance it maintains. Does it have Comprehensive General Liability Insurance (“CGL”), premises liability (“PI”), and if so, with which agency and in what dollar amount? These are valid questions, and you have a right to have them answered.

In addition, thanks to the Internet, you might want to check local courthouse records to see if there have been any lawsuits against the facility where you are considering boarding your horse. Numerous lawsuits against a facility would be a good indicator that this is a place you should avoid. On the other hand, a lack of court filings is no guarantee that the facility does a good job.

You can also check with the Better Business Bureau, talk to veterinarians in the area, ask the staff at the local feed store or check an online source such as Rate My Horse PRO to see if they are listed and have been reviewed.

Finally, there are provisions that are standard in most contracts, but if you skip over and do not read them, you may regret it:

1. Does the contract contain an arbitration clause? This can mean that you cannot sue in regular court if there is a dispute. Instead the matter is resolved in a private hearing in front of a retired judge. Arbitration procedures are supposed to bring the matter to a quicker resolution because you are not stuck at the mercy of an overbooked trial court calendar, but many times arbitration clauses specifically leave out many of the procedural protections of regular court proceedings. Furthermore, because of high fees, they may be more expensive than litigating a dispute in small claims court.
2. Does the contract contain a venue clause? This dictates in which state and court any dispute will be litigated and can become an issue if you board your horse out of state, for example, at a trainer’s barn.
3. Does the contract have a choice of law clause? I’ve seen contracts where the lawsuit can be brought in California but the laws of New Jersey govern how the dispute is resolved. This is a trap for the unwary and should be carefully reviewed with your attorney.
4. Does that contract contain a notice provision? In other words, how does the facility contact you and vice versa?
5. What about attorneys’ fees? Some contracts state that if there is a dispute, the losing party pays all of the winner’s attorneys’ fees. Others state that only reasonable attorneys’ fees can be recovered. There is a significant difference in the two clauses and this should be reviewed with your attorney.
6. Does the contract apply to new owners of the boarding facility? You don’t want to wake up one day and find that the facility has been sold and now the new owner is claiming not to be bound by the contract.
7. What if some provision of the contract is found to be illegal or void by a court? Some contracts provide that if a portion of the contract is found enforceable, the rest of it remains intact. Other contracts are silent on this issue and thus you possibly are at the mercy of a trial judge who could declare the entire contract void and enforceable. Again, this is an issue to review with your attorney.
8. Is there a limitation on damage awards or remedies? Some contracts limit how much you can recover in damages from the other party. Despite having an expensive horse, the contract may limit you to only 2-3 months’ worth of rent/boarding fees. So even if your expensive show horse was damaged such that the horse can no longer show or you incurred a huge veterinarian bill, you may be capped or limited on the amount of recovery.

Again, the foregoing is not an exhaustive list of the issues you should consider in a boarding facility contract, but if you retain the right attorney, this list should help you both develop a strategy for deciding if the boarding facility is the right one for you.