Monday, September 15, 2008
Abandoned Horses: Finders, Keepers?
With the declining economy, Equine Legal Solutions is receiving a sharp increase in calls from people wanting to know if they can keep an "abandoned" horse.
Is the Horse Really Abandoned?
Many calls ELS receives about keeping abandoned horses are from boarding stable owners who have a boarding relationship with the horse owner. Because there is a boarding relationship in place, the horse is not legally considered abandoned and the horse owner still has all ownership rights. Rather, the boarder has breached the boarding agreement, and therefore the boarding stable must seek breach of contract remedies. This is still true even if there was never a written contract, the boarder never signed anything, the boarder hasn't been out to see the horse for months, the boarder moved away and can't be found, the boarder is in jail, etc. The bottom line is that the stable will have to follow the proper legal procedures or get the boarder's written permission before they can keep, sell or give away the horse. If they don't, they risk being sued.
In other cases, the caller has simply found a horse and has no idea to whom the horse belongs. Sometimes, the horse is running down the road. Other times, it has mysteriously appeared in the caller's pasture overnight. The caller wants to know if they can get legal title to the horse. The short answer is NO. The horse's lawful owner has not lost their legal claim of ownership simply because the horse got loose (or even if the owner turned it loose). If you find a horse, you should call your local sheriff and/or animal control to find out what to do with the horse. While you are waiting for an answer, keep in mind that the found horse may have health problems, and therefore you should keep it separated from your own horses.
Can I Get Reimbursed for Care?
The short answer: Maybe. If you are a boarding stable, you have legal recourse against the boarder for the cost of care. If a horse shows up on your property and you provide care for it, you may have a legal case based upon unjust enrichment or other legal theories. But, the bottom line is that you can't count on being reimbursed. Even if you have a legal case against the horse owner, it will not likely be cost-effective to bring that legal case, particularly if the horse owner is of modest means. So, if you provide care for a found horse, you should do with the assumption that you are doing so purely for the horse's benefit, and that the lawful owner could show up at any time and take that horse away without giving you anything more than a "Thank You."
What about Registration Papers?
Unless you can get legal title to the horse, you can't get registration papers in your name. You can get legal title if the horse owner gives it to you or if you obtain a court declaration that you are the lawful owner. Otherwise, you have no hope of getting the horse registered in your name with any well-established breed registry. End of story. The fact that you might know the horse's registered name or that it is a purebred horse will have no impact on whether you can get it registered in your name. (If it was that easy to get papers, horse thieves would simply steal horses and then get duplicate papers for them.)