Equine Law: What It Is & Why It Should Matter To You

Introducing a new column series by Kjirsten Lee, J.D.

From Kjirsten:

There are a lot of ways to be involved in the horse industry: as a trainer, a veterinarian, a barn manager, a groom, and more. But, there are other options, too, and my path has led me to equine law. Here, I’d like to introduce the concept of equine law and the importance of having someone who understands horses and the horse industry to help when legal issues come up.

Consider this scenario: After years of lessons and saving, you started looking for a horse. After watching hours of videos and traveling across several state lines, you think you found “The One.” You sign some papers and your gorgeous, fancy horse-of-a-lifetime arrives at your boarding barn. You can’t wait to ride, but when you get on, something feels different. You ask your trainer, the vet, and the farrier. No one can say exactly what is going on, but everyone agrees that the horse is not quite “right.” Disappointed, you call the seller, who tells you that they’re very sorry, but the horse is yours and they can’t be held accountable for anything involved with the horse anymore. You hang up, feeling slightly taken advantage of.

This type of situation happens more often than buyers and sellers want to admit. A carefully written sale agreement protects each party — buyer and seller — so it is also important to read and understand the sales agreement before signing it.

Another scenario: your child has outgrown their pony, but your neighbor has a youngster who would like to start riding. You agree to let them ride your child’s pony, provided they have a helmet and proper boots. Everyone is excited, and things are fine for a few weeks. Then, one day when you’re not at home, the neighbor child comes over. They tack up the pony and get on, and the pony, feeling fresh, gives a couple of little bucks. The child falls off and breaks their arm. Your neighbors are very unhappy and threaten legal action.

You can protect yourself from this type of scenario. Whether you own a horse business, teach lessons, or just have a pony that you let your friends’ kids play with, you open yourself up to potential liability. It is always a good idea to have anyone who interacts with your horses first sign a release of liability.

These are just a couple examples of how the law can play into your life as a horse person. Here is a short list of other ways:

  • Torts: injuries from horses
  • Contracts: boarding, breeding, sales, etc.
  • Property: legal status of your horses and land
  • Wills/Trusts/Estates
  • Insurance: equine mortality or liability
  • Immigration: competition visas, migrant workers
  • Administrative law: rules and regulations for competition
  • Criminal law: welfare & abuse

There are also some specific things competitors should think about. Whether you compete locally, nationally, or internationally, you have to comply with the sponsoring organization’s rules and regulations. The USEF has rules and regulations for every discipline, and your local horse show organizations probably have their own rules. For example, the USEF initially decided to ban helmet cameras as part of its updated rules, effective 2015. The organization lifted this ban, but it is still up to local horse show organizations to decide whether they will allow helmet cameras. Make sure you are familiar with all of the appropriate rules and regulations before you sign up for a competition!

Hiring a lawyer is a very important decision. Your lawyer should be someone who you trust. They should also understand your questions and how the law relates to your horses. This is why it can be very beneficial to hire a lawyer who specializes in equine law. Most equine lawyers have had experience in the horse industry before they became lawyers, and many continue to be involved, in addition to their legal practice, as horse owners, competitors, and so on. Your equine attorney understands that your horse is not just property or a business asset, he’s family, and they’ll treat him as such — to the extent the law allows.

Kjirsten Lee, J.D., is an attorney in Memphis, TN. She has written on topics such as the Horse Protection Act and use of drugs in racehorses. Kjirsten and her OTTB, Gobain, compete in dressage and eventing.


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