Equine Law: Considerations Before Hitting the Trail

Autumn is a great season for trail riding! Before you saddle up, however, there are a few considerations to keep in mind for your physical and legal safety. Kjirsten Lee, J.D. offers some advice.

Kristen Kovatch Bentley

Kristen Kovatch Bentley

It’s fall, and equestrians know what that means … trail rides! When the leaves start changing color, there’s no better way to enjoy the outdoors than on horseback. Okay, so that’s true for the rest of the year as well, but fall brings some particularly beautiful rides, as well as increased challenges to trail riding – specifically related to the land we ride on.

Some folks are lucky enough to have miles of trails on their own land. For many people, however, trail riding means venturing away from home, whether it’s to a neighbor’s property or onto public lands.

Legal considerations

Before hitting the trail, make sure horses are allowed where you plan to ride. Check with the local park staff if you are planning to ride on public lands, and with your neighbors if the trails you will be exploring are privately owned. If you are unsure whether the trails you will be riding on cross onto neighboring land, it’s a good idea to consult a plat book to find out if you need to get permission from someone. Verbal permission is great, but it is best to have written permission from the landowner. An equine attorney can help you draft a short agreement giving you limited permission to ride on someone else’s property while limiting your liability if anything bad happens.

For those riding on public property, make sure you check with a member of the park staff regarding the current rules for using the land. You should always plan to bring your own water and hay, but make sure that there aren’t specific restrictions or requirements.

Safety considerations

One of the biggest concerns for trail riders in the fall is whether there are hunters nearby. It is not unheard-of for horses to be unintentionally shot by hunters, and you will probably hear gunshots in the distance. You can reduce any risk by wearing bright clothing to clearly indicate that you are human. Good colors include safety green or blaze orange. Try to avoid known hunting areas, and if you are riding on neighboring property ask the landowner if anyone will be hunting there. Try to talk with any hunters beforehand and determine when they will be out — most likely early morning or evening. Avoid riding during those times if at all possible. You can find other safety suggestions for trail riding during hunting season here.

Hunters are not the only other trail users you might encounter. In many areas, dogs are also allowed on trails that have equine access. If you run into an unleashed dog on your ride, the best thing is to halt and ask the dog’s owner to restrain the dog while you pass, or to restrain the dog and pass you. Try to avoid direct contact between dogs and horses if at all possible. Also check to see if ATVs are allowed where you will be riding.  These vehicles sometimes travel at quick speeds, and are unable to make rapid stops.

What to do in case of an accident

Accidents can happen even if you take every precaution. If there has been an injury, it is best to call for emergency help. If you are on private land when an accident occurs, call for emergency help and then notify the landowner of what has happened. If you have concerns about whether you will be subject to legal liability for an injury, or if you think you have been injured, consult an equine attorney.

Now go grab your safety vest, and go riding!

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