Having your horses properly cared for while you’re away presents challenges

The holiday season offers plenty of opportunity for visiting family and friends, or even going on a winter vacation. For horse owners, though, going out of town for any reason can cause a particular problem. Who will take care of the horses? Who will feed and water them? Who will turn them out into pasture, muck out the stalls, and so forth?

Rather than go through the hassle and inconvenience of taking their horses to a boarding facility, many horse owners choose to hire a horse sitter. A horse sitter generally either stays at the property or comes by periodically to take care of the horses. While this may seem like a convenient and simple solution, it can come with its share of legal concerns. Whether you are thinking of hiring a horse sitter (or perhaps even acting as a horse sitter for another), there are certain issues you should consider.

First and foremost, you should make sure that any horse sitter you hire is bonded and insured. Horses are considered “chattel,” which means they are tangible personal property. Horse sitting is therefore considered a “bailment,” which is the legal term for leaving someone temporarily in charge of your personal property. This is important because, in every bailment, the “bailee” (the person temporarily in charge of the personal property) has an obligation to return the property unharmed and in the same condition it was prior to the bailment. Consequently, if a horse is injured or harmed while a horse sitter is in charge, there is a presumption of negligence against the horse sitter. Of course, this presumption can be refuted (more on that in a moment), but generally speaking, a horse sitter is presumed to be responsible for the injury, harm or even death of a horse in their care. The problem is, even with a presumption of negligence, if a horse-sitter has no assets and is not insured, you might win a lawsuit against them, but have no way to recover the costs incurred due to the injury to, or loss of, your horse. With a horse sitter who is bonded and insured, you are protected should something go wrong while you are away.

As mentioned, even though there is a presumption of negligence if a horse is injured or suffers harm while under the care of horse sitter, that presumption can be refuted. One way in which the presumption can be rebutted is if the owner fails to communicate to the horse sitter about the temperament or habits of their horses and the mishap or injury occurs as a result.

A horse, while considered personal property, is also a living creature with habits, quirks and moods. If you fail to warn a horse sitter of a particular issue with your horses, the horse sitter can argue that you are responsible for any problems that occur. For instance, suppose you fail to tell the horse sitter that your horse Bruno does not do well when put in the stall next to your other horse Mars. The horse sitter puts them in stalls next to each other, and Bruno goes wild, ultimately injuring himself. Even though the horse was injured while under the care of the horse sitter, you may be held responsible for failing to advise the horse sitter of the problem putting Bruno in the stall next to Mars.

One way to avoid such situations is to write down all the information that your horse sitter may need and make sure that you communicate that information to them. This not only includes general information and instructions for care and feeding, veterinary information, and the like, but also should include a comprehensive listing of any quirks, likes, dislikes, personality traits, temperament issues, and other such details regarding your horses. There is no such thing as too much information, and it is better to provide more information than not enough. Again, I stress that this information should be provided in writing so that a horse sitter cannot later claim that you did not tell them of a certain issue.

Similarly, it is important for you to discuss in detail, and commit to writing, information regarding veterinary care in the event of a health emergency. You should include the name and address of two or more veterinarians and/or animal hospitals (in case one or the other cannot be reached), and you should detail exactly how much authority the horse sitter has for medical treatment. For instance, in the event of an emergency, can the horse sitter authorize medical care prior to speaking with you and obtaining your approval? If not, and the horse dies due to some emergent medical issue before you can be reached, the horse sitter will most likely not be held responsible.

It is also vital for you to check and double check your barn and equipment for any potential safety hazards before having a horse sitter take charge. Otherwise, you may find yourself in legal trouble if your horse sitter is injured. Generally, Equine Liability Laws will provide some protection if the horse sitter is injured while taking care of your horses, but that protection quickly evaporates if the injury occurs because of your negligence. For instance, suppose the gate on the horse stall has loose hinges. While mucking out the stall, the horse sitter bumps the gate with the shovel and it falls off the hinges, landing on her foot and causing serious injury. Even though the injury occurred during an equine-related activity, it occurred because of the negligent condition of the stall gate, and you may be held liable, unless you either fix the gate or at least warn the horse sitter of the condition.

Of course, it is always important to thoroughly check the credentials and experience of any horse sitter you hire. It is not enough for a person to have been around horses—they must know how to properly care for them. As a horse owner, you need to be proactive when investigating the credentials of any potential horse sitter. Check out their references. Speak to others who have used them. Look into the experience they claim to have. If you are planning to use a horse sitter for a long trip, try them for a shorter trip first to see how they do. There are many horror stories out there relating to less-than-competent horse sitters. There are cases when the horse sitter simply forgot to show up, or felt so overwhelmed they quit before the end of the owner’s term of absence. There are instances where lazy caretakers failed to properly muck out the stall or turn the horses out to pasture. I know of one case where a horse had pooped in his water bucket and the horse sitter simply topped the water bucket off each day without bothering to clean it out. The horse became very ill from drinking the polluted water. While a horse sitter may be held liable for the cost of medical care or the value of a horse in the event of death, nothing can fairly compensate a horse owner for the emotional turmoil and anxiety caused by such negligent actions.

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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