Abandonment: A look at how the law views horses left to fend for themselves

Picture this: One day, when you go to bring your two horses in from the pasture, you find a third horse – one you don’t recognize – grazing contentedly alongside yours. What do you do? Or suppose you agree to board a horse for someone, but after a couple of months, that person stops paying you and disappears. What then?

For those who love their horses, it is hard to imagine ever abandoning them. All too often, though, it happens. Whether it is due to financial hardship, unexpected illness, or some other reason, a horse owner who is unable or unwilling to care for a horse, may resort to abandonment. In fact, in recent years, the incidences of horse abandonment have been on the rise, most likely due to difficult financial times.

The situation of horse abandonment poses some interesting, and perhaps surprising, legal issues. Consider the first scenario, where a stranger has left her horse in your pasture. Granted, this type of abandonment doesn’t happen all that often, but it does happen. Common sense might tell you that if the horse is truly abandoned, and the owner cannot be found, that horse immediately becomes yours. In this instance, though, common sense would be wrong.

Horses left on someone else’s property don’t automatically become the property of the landowner. It’s generally not “finders’ keepers” where horses are involved. Depending upon State and local laws, if someone finds an abandoned horse on their property, he/she must take reasonable steps to determine who the horse belongs to, contact animal control and/or take other administrative steps before he/she can claim any kind of ownership interest in the horse.

In light of this, one might assume that the property owner doesn’t have any obligations with regard to the care and upkeep of the horse, right?


Even though a property owner may not have an ownership interest in an abandoned horse, he/she does have the responsibility to take care of the horse. In fact, the failure to take reasonable care of the horse, providing food, water, shelter and so forth, can open the property owner up to animal cruelty charges. In addition, if the horse causes injury to another while on the property, the property owner can be held liable. Of course, there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances for these situations, but for the most part, Courts have found that a land owner is, in effect, the guardian of the abandoned horse, and is thus responsible for its care and actions.

More commonly, when horse a is abandoned, it involves a horse being left at a boarding facility. Generally, a boarder will stop paying and stop coming to the facility. In this type of situation, the boarding facility typically knows the identity of the horse owner. It is up to the boarding facility to attempt to contact the owner and resolve the situation. Contrary to what many believe, the boarding facility doesn’t have the immediate right to claim ownership of the horse because of the default in payment, nor do they have the automatic right to sell the horse or treat it as their own, using it for their own purposes (i.e. trail rides, horseback riding lessons, etc.). However, the boarding facility still has the obligation to care for the horse, even though they are no longer being compensated for those services.

Of course, the boarding facility does have legal rights in this instance. Generally (and depending again upon specific State laws), the boarding facility may pursue several options:

Stableman’s Lien Foreclosure: Often called Agister’s Liens, these laws give the boarding facility a lien on the horse, and permit foreclosure and sale in the event the horse owner stops paying. However, the procedures that must be followed are often complex and time consuming. Plus, the boarding facility often incurs legal expenses and attorney’s fees which are not recouped (unless terms of that nature were included in a boarding contract). Most often, the abandoned horse has low market value (an owner generally won’t abandon a million-dollar thoroughbred), which will draw only a minimal amount at auction (if sold at all, given the possibility of title problems down the road). Thus, the amount recouped may only be a fraction of the costs the boarding facility incurred.

Declaratory Proceedings: This process can be used by boarding facilities or private individuals who somehow find themselves in possession of an abandoned horse. Again, depending on the State and local jurisdiction, the facility or individual presents evidence to the Court that the horse is, indeed, abandoned. For the most part, the facility or individual must show a good faith effort to contact the horse’s owner and to notify the owner of the intention to move forward with a declaratory proceeding. After considering the evidence and any opposition, the Court makes a ruling as to whether or not to grant title to the facility or individual. If title is granted, the facility or individual then gains ownership interest in the horse, and can do with it as they please. They can also proceed with a separate action against the original horse owner to recoup any prior expenses pertaining to the care of the horse.

Civil Action:   A boarding facility can also bring civil action against the owner of the horse. The civil action is usually based upon the violation of the boarding contract and can be tailored to the terms of that contract. Many times, though, if the horse is abandoned, it is because the owner simply cannot afford to pay for the horse any longer. Therefore, even if the facility wins the lawsuit, and is awarded a money judgment, chances are, the owner will not be able to pay the judgment. In that instance, certain procedures allow the horse to be sold to satisfy all or part of the debt. Again, however, this type of civil action can be costly and time consuming, and the facility is usually stuck caring for the horse during the pendency of the proceedings, and ends up recovering only a portion of the debt.


In the end, no one ever truly wins when a horse is abandoned. However, circumstances sometimes make it impossible for even the most devoted horse enthusiasts to continue to care for their horses. There are resources and options available for those who can no longer care for their horses. Next month, we’ll take a look at some of those options.



            Mati Jarve is the managing partner of the Marlton, New Jersey law firm of Jarve Kaplan Granato, LLC. He is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Civil Trial Attorney and the National Board of Trial Attorneys as a Trial Advocate. Licensed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arizona, he maintains a national practice in civil litigation, including equine related issues. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice.

            If you have a specific legal question or problem you should consult with an experienced and knowledgeable equine law attorney. Questions, comments or suggestions can be e-mailed to mjarve@nj-triallawyers.com, by visiting www.nj-triallawyers.com.


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