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Rachel Kosmal McCart is a lifelong horsewoman and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC, an equine law firm based in the Portland, Oregon area. Rachel is a member of the New York, California, Oregon and Washington State bars and is admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rachel currently competes in three-day eventing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Horse Boarders' Legal Rights (or Lack Thereof)

At Equine Legal Solutions, we receive a lot of calls from horse owners who are unhappy with a situation at their boarding stable and want to know what their "legal rights" are. The short answer is that boarders have only the legal rights given to them by their boarding contract (if they have one) and relevant case law.  Note that the boarder not having received a copy of the contract or having lost their copy of the contract doesn't change the boarder's legal rights.  

What if the boarder doesn't have a written boarding contract?  The answer is that at best, they have a verbal boarding contract (the terms of which will be very hard to prove).  Aside from that, they can rely only on relevant case law to provide them with any legal recourse, such as if the boarding stable was negligent in caring for their horse (and the horse suffered injury or death as a result).

On occasion, boarders have spoken to various friends and relatives and come up with the idea that their state's landlord/tenant law applies.  That's just flat wrong.  Unless the boarder lives on the property, landlord/tenant law won't apply to a horse boarding dispute.  In the four states where we practice, California, New York, Oregon and Washington, there are no laws governing horse boarding, other than animal cruelty statutes and local zoning regulations governing use of the property.

Generally, questions about horse boarders' legal rights fall into three categories:  Terminating the boarding relationship, raising board prices and what the boarding stable is required to provide for boarders and their horses.

Boarding Contract Termination

A boarding stable's right to terminate the boarding contract is governed by what the contract says.  If the boarding contract says nothing about termination or there is no contract at all, the boarding stable can give the boarder practically any form of termination notice.  Unless the boarding contract specifies the boarding stable has to give the boarder advance notice prior to termination, the boarding stable can notify the boarder that it wants the boarder to leave immediately.  Unless the boarding contract says termination notices must be in writing, the stable can give the boarder notice in any form it chooses, including verbally, as long as the boarder receives the notice.

Nothing else is relevant, including:
  • How long the boarder has been at the facility (yes, even if it's been decades)
  • Whether the boarder is current on their board payments (yes, even if they're paid up in advance - they can get a prorated refund)
  • Whether the boarder wants to leave
  • Whether it's practical for the boarder to move their horse by the termination date
  • Whether there's another boarding stable that meets the boarder's personal standards of geographic location, price, care, etc.
  • Whether the boarder is required to give the facility advance notice if the boarder terminates the boarding contract
  • The boarding stable's reasons for terminating the contract.  The boarding stable doesn't have to have a reason to terminate a boarding contract, and even if they do, they don't have to tell the boarder what it is.
  • Whether the boarding stable has met the boarder's personal standards of horse care, etc. up until the point of termination
Raising Boarding Rates

There's no rent control in horse boarding.  Unless a boarding contract says otherwise, a boarding stable can raise its rates as much as it wants, as often as it wants, with as little advance warning as it wants.  Much like terminating a boarding contract, nothing else is relevant, including:

  • How long the boarding rates have been the same
  • How recent the last rate increases were
  • Whether the boarder is current on their board payments
  • Whether the boarder can afford the increase
  • Whether the boarding stable's amenities and level of care justify the increase
  • The reasons (if any) that the boarding stable gives for the increase
Often, boarders want to know if there's anything they can do if they don't like a board increase.  Essentially, there are two choices:  Pay or leave.  And if the boarder chooses to leave, they must provide the boarding stable with the notice specified in the boarding contract (if any).

Boarding Stable Standard of Care

Again, the standard of care for boarding stables is governed largely by what the boarding contract says.  Otherwise, the boarding stable has to provide only the most basic level of care.  For example, unless the boarding contract says otherwise:
  • If a boarder's horse is bigger than average, or eats more than average, the boarding stable isn't legally obligated to feed him more, as long as he's not starving to death (literally).  So, if a boarder thinks their horse needs more feed than he's getting, and the boarding stable wants to charge the boarder extra, they can.  If the boarding stable doesn't want to increase the horse's feed, the boarder might have to buy their own feed.  And the boarder should be prepared to store and feed the extras themselves.
  • Similarly, the boarding stable can feed whatever type of hay and/or feed it chooses, as long as it's not unsafe.  And "unsafe" means moldy, contaminated, or of a type not suitable for horses, such as silage.  Hay that's merely stemmy or poor quality isn't sufficient cause for a negligence lawsuit as long as the horses aren't starving to death (literally).
  • The boarding stable can use whatever type of bedding it wants, bed stalls at any depth it wants, and clean stalls as frequently/infrequently as it wants, as long as stall conditions are not "Call Animal Control" unsanitary.  If the boarder wants different bedding, more bedding, and/or more frequent stall cleaning, the boarder will probably have to pay for it.  Even if the boarder's horse is allergic to the current bedding, is on stall rest, etc.
  • The facilities the boarding stable provides have to be reasonably safe for normal use.  Just because a horse got hurt doesn't mean the boarding stable was negligent. 
  • The boarding stable can provide as few or as many amenities as it chooses. And the existing amenities don't have to be operational. The wash rack plumbing doesn't have to work, the outdoor arena can be too muddy to use nine months out of the year, and the indoor arena lights can be sketchy.  If the boarder feels like they're paying for amenities they can't use, they should negotiate with the boarding stable, and if that doesn't work, consider leaving.
Bottom line, if a boarder isn't happy, and they can't work out a compromise with the boarding stable, they should either get comfortable with the situation the way it is, or prepare to move to another boarding stable.


Anonymous said...

As a stable owner, I'd like to add some perspective for boarders. I love what I do, but let's face it. Our horses are like our kids and have you ever met 2 parents with the exact same idea about what's best for kids? Horse people are already half crazy by definition...who would spend this kind of money on something that gives so little in return? ;-)

This is our home, like you, we have precious little time to ourselves, but when you need something or a horse has a colic or a transporter is coming, it doesn't matter if we're eating or watching a movie or ought to be sleeping...we are at your complete disposal. We are being paid precious little for that.

If only our own horses were here, everything would be untouched by anyone but our own family and invited guests. There would be no question where things were put, how they were handled, if they were broken or went home with someone. You know what feed and bedding costs, but do you know what the property taxes, utilities, water bill, upkeep and maintenance is for a place this size? Add the tools, tack and supplies that disappear and it becomes a sizable sum.

You want me to be here 24/7. That means we can NEVER be away on a true family vacation. Someone has to stay here all the time. We cannot seek higher paying work off premise.

You can choose to take your horse anywhere. We can only control what it is like here for your horse to a very small degree. We can only watch if you come ride in a foul mood or if you cannot afford to provide the level of medical or special care your horse needs. We watch as horses grow sad because their owner doesn't come out, loses interest or is poorly matched to their mount.

This is not a fair weather sport. We must feed, muck, repair, catch, blanket, break ice on troughs, etc. no matter how cold it is or how the wind is blowing sideways. You are in your living room, we are out in this stuff morning and night.

Just a few thoughts to give a look over the fence - it's a privilege and a blessing to be able to care for these fabulous creatures, but sometimes, honestly their owners can just drive ya nuts.

Just because you write a check every month doesn't mean you own them. Tell your stable owner thank you once in awhile. When they ask you how you are, ask them how THEY are and see if there is anything you can do to help. Be considerate, smile, treat others as you would like to be treated.

salty-jo said...

Thats a lovely sentiment, but you chose to be a barn owner so I myself do not sympathize for your lack of vacation time and after hours care. You ARE making money off of your boarders and you can certainly choose another profession if the hassles of this one are too much for you.
I am the person on the other side of the fence. I have been to 7 stables in as many years and about to be in my 8th. My horses have been starved, and beaten, and I have been cheated, bullied and harassed. I have paid out of my pocket a $1000 vet bill because of the negligence of a barn and will be paying for months for my horse to stand around in a stall for the next several months because of it.
Laws need to be made to protect the boarder and give them recourse, maybe then all these atrocities will stop, rather than give barn owners an open door for abuse.

Caterina Hamilton said...

I have been a horse boarder, barn manager and now a barn owner/trainer. I have been on all sides. I can tell you that barn owners make enough to cover the barn expenses and maybe enough to pay the cell phone bill and put gas in the car. This is NOT a get-rich-by-any-stretch of the imagination. For those barn jumpers who have to move every couple of months or once a year (outside of job transfers)...typically they are the challenge. I have just had 2 at my barn, that even though they were on full care, thought that it was perfectly ok and in their right, to take hay from my horses and give it to their own. They like fat horses and nothing else mattered but what they wanted.

If you are finding you are being harassed, bullied, threatened, then do one of three things: 1) take a look at yourself and are you being respectful of that barn's staff and rules. 2) If you are being respectful, then you need to lease your own 2 stall barn (there are alot out there). 3) Interview this next or any future barn and talk to the boarders. Find out the good and the bad and see if you can accept the shortcomings and positives each place has to offer.

Christie Shively said...

Thank you for your equitorial (love that :-)) even tho it says what I am SO disgusted about...that horse owners as boarders have zero rights. This is not a problem if you are lucky to find a barn that fits you, but my luck has been exhausting, costly, upsetting, and super stressful. I l love my horse so much. He changed my life. My grandma who passed away in October, bought him for me, leaving him not only sentimental to me but I have no family now so, he makes me happy like I do have someone. I am embarrassed to say I have been to more than a few barns since I rescued him, but I have had horrendous problems from one to the next even while learning mistakes at each and trying to eliminAte in the next. Long story short, because I could go on and on and I think you might be shocked of the details, I feel compelled to start a revolution to protect boarder's rights. We have NONE. Boarding I believe is lucrative for an owner if done right. I know that the money I hand over m monthly was earned with blood sweat and tears so why is this business transaction unlike any other that a consumer has a right to be treated fair? I always pay 2 months rent at a time and have been kicked out with no notice, basically putting my horse and I on the street. Is there possibility to revolutionize this in the boarder's favor? If they wAnt my business can I give them a contract as well? This needs to change because I am in a client based businesses and if I treated people the way I have been treated I would have no clients. Do you have any advice I could use? I live in Tampa Florida. If you could I would really appreciate it, but either way, I appreciate this website you have created in Order to inform a boarder...We need it.

Colleen Chance said...

I need to know how to get a boarder to move her horses. She does not pay her board. The horses must be fed daily without her paying board on a regular basis. I even broke it down to once a week payments. I have told her to league but she does not. She does not answer my calls or texts. What can I do?

Rachel McCart, Equine Legal Solutions said...

Hi, Colleen. We can't answer legal questions over the Internet, but if you are in CA, WA, OR or WA (the states where we're licensed to practice), we can offer you a phone consultation. Here's more information:

Beverly said...

First I would like to Thank the owner of this Blog for all the (FREE)Excellent info I found here. Thank You for your time and energy!

To Charna....... I enjoyed reading your post. Saying Thank you and asking if there is anything a boarder can do to help occasionally is right on. That's whats wrong with most of the world today! We live in a society of "ME" people.

Thanks again,