Legal Questions and Answers for the Horse Community

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Rachel Kosmal McCart
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Donor Beware: The Dangers of Giving Away a Horse

Q: I gave my two horses to an acquaintance that Ill call Sally?two years ago because at the time, I couldn't afford to keep them and I wanted them to have a good home. When I offered to give Sally the horses, I made it clear that I didn't want her to give them to someone else or sell them without telling me first. I was up in Sally's area visiting and stopped by to see the horses and make sure they were okay. When I got there, I saw one horse in the pasture, but not the other one. Sally came out and I asked her what happened to him. She said that he was too much for her to handle, so she gave him to someone else. She gave me that guy's address and I went to his house, only to find out that he had sold the horse to someone and he wouldn't give me that person's name or address. Im worried sick about my horse and would like to have him back. Is there anything I can do?

A: Unfortunately, giving away a horse is a lot like selling it ?the only real difference is that you don't receive any money in exchange for giving up the rights of ownership. Once the horse leaves your possession, you have very little control over its future. In this case, you had an agreement with the seller that she should contact you before giving the horse to anyone else. However, you could only enforce that agreement against Sally, not an innocent third party who received the horse without knowledge of the agreement you had with Sally. This means that you could not use your agreement to get your horse back. You could potentially enforce the agreement against Sally and seek damages from her. However, it's a weak case ?Im guessing that your agreement is not in writing (and that old saying about verbal agreements being worth the paper they are written on is true!). In addition, your damages would be difficult to measure.

Instead of pursuing a case against Sally, I would recommend directing your resources toward finding the horse. You can fire up your email network, make use of the various Internet bulletin boards, post fliers in tack shops and feed stores, ask local 4-H, trail and Pony Club leaders. Don't forget to include at least one clear photo with every email, post and flier ?not only does it grab attention, it makes your horse easier to identify. In your communications, make it clear that you only seek information on the horse's whereabouts and condition, and honor that statement. Make sure that you are kind and polite to everyone who contacts you ?you don't want to discourage our horse community from coming forward with information.

Here are some tips to help ensure that a horse you give away lives out his days in a good home:

(1) Charge a Fee. Much like charging a modest adoption fee for puppies and kittens, you can help protect your horse by selling him for a modest price that reflects his condition, training, or other reasons you are giving him away. Having to pay even a modest amount of cash for a horse helps screen out well-meaning folks who might not have thought carefully enough about the adoption as well as folks with a more sinister motive.

(2) Consider Leasing Instead. In these difficult economic times, many horse owners are faced with the choice of giving away hard-to-sell horses because they simply cannot afford to care for them any longer. Many times, the economic situation is temporary. In these cases, it may make sense to lease your horses to caring folks instead of selling them or giving them away. For tips on leasing your horse, see Leasing a Horse?on the Equine Legal Solutions website.

(3) Get Creative. There are many charitable organizations that might be interested in adopting your horse and giving him a useful life. Rescue organizations are an obvious choice ?see the ?a href="/rescue.php">Rescue? section of the Bay Area Equestrian Network's Business Directory. There are also more creative options. If your horse is serviceably sound with a very quiet temperament, he may be well-suited to a therapeutic riding program ?see ?a href="/handi.php">Therapeutic Riding Programs.? Many university equestrian programs depend upon donated horses and it is a tax-deductible way to support your alma mater. For example, my family donated a Quarter Horse, George, to my undergraduate school, Stephens College, which is located in Columbia, Missouri. George was not happy in his job with us as a show ring hunter, but he lived out his days blissfully packing around beginners in walk-trot lessons (a skill we were very surprised to find out that he excelled at!). You might also try contacting local 4-H clubs and Pony Clubs to see if there is a match for your horse. Remember how badly you wanted a horse as a youngster ?there are kids out there who might LOVE to have your horse. Finally, there are kind folks out there who just want a companion horse or lawn ornament ?reach out to them in the ways described above for finding a lost horse.

(4) Screen the Adoptive Home. In my practice, I have heard horrible stories about what can happen to a donated horse, from starvation to being sold at meat auctions. I can't emphasize enough that you should go and personally inspect the place where your horse will be living, even if you are donating your horse to an organization that appears legitimate. Check out the condition of the place and the condition of the other animals on the property ?are the stalls clean and the animals well-fed and in good shape? Chat with the people there and ask to see the feed your horse will receive (bad hay is a bad sign). Ask them for veterinarian and farrier references, then call those references! Trust your instincts ?if youre not sure, don't give them your horse.

(5) Have a Written Agreement. Most charitable organizations that routinely accept donated horses will ask you to sign a written agreement (and if they don't, they should, for their own protection). Make sure that you read anything that you are asked to sign carefully, noting what it says about what will happen if the organization doesn't keep your horse. Ask for a copy of the agreement to take home with you. If you do not have a written agreement, ask an equine attorney to draft one for you ?Equine Legal Solutions offers this service at an affordable fixed price. A written agreement clarifies the terms under which you are giving the horse away, and can help protect you from liability in the event that your horse injures someone after he has left your care.

About the Author: Rachel Kosmal McCart, the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, is a lifelong horsewoman and experienced lawyer. Equine Legal Solutions, the Legal Counsel with Horse Sense TM , offers a full range of legal services for the horse community, including dispute resolution, customized contracts and risk management assessment.
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