In the old days, when people agreed to board someone's horse, there was a discussion followed by a handshake. These days, the discussion about horse boarding is just as important, but the handshake has been replaced by a horse boarding contract. We asked equine attorney Julie Fershtman for her advice regarding horse boarding contracts.
Perfect Horse:Assume that we've done our homework in checking out a boarding facility and we're convinced that we've found a good place to keep our horse. The owner of the facility has asked us to sign a boarding contract. What parts of it are most important to us, as boarders?
Boarders should watch for these provisions:
- Release of Liability. These days, many stables include a release of liability within their boarding contracts. Boarding stables do this to protect themselves for injuries or losses that may be caused by their negligence or liability. Because releases can be very powerful under the law in most states, what you sign today, when all seems well, might virtually destroy your legal recourse against the stable if things go bad tomorrow.
Realistically, the boarding stable might insist that you sign its release before you can become a boarder there. Negotiating it out of the contract is, very likely, not an option. If you are convinced that the stable is a good place to board, you'll probably feel much more comfortable signing the contract.
Check That Contract
- Closely check any liability waivers you may be asked to sign.
- Make arrangements for how to handle emergency vet needs, including when you're unavailable.
- Know up front what, if any, side charges a stable requires.
- Beware of contracts that give a stable title to a horse if you fall behind on boarding payments.
- Standard boarding contracts in books and online are usually just a good starting point.
- Emergencies. The problem of an unavailable owner is certainly a foreseeable one-even when we are reachable just about everywhere these days thanks to cell-phone technology. Still, we can never be certain of finding someone when we want him or her.
In my first book, Equine Law & Horse Sense, I give a tragic example of a horse owner who departs for a two-week dream vacation in a remote area. The day the owner leaves, her horse encounters a serious bout of colic. The boarding stable, unable to reach the owner and unsure if the owner would consent to expensive surgery and follow-up care, tells the veterinarian to put the horse down. Two weeks later, the owner returns only to learn that her beloved horse is dead and buried and the mortality insurance company refuses to pay her anything because she failed to give the insurer proper and timely notice of the horse's condition and demise.
For this reason, boarders should insist upon a clause in the boarding contract that gives the stable some sort of direction in the event that the owner cannot be reached when a veterinary emergency arises. Several options are possible. The one I most prefer, especially when I represent stables, is a complete authorization for the stable to arrange all veterinary care that it deems necessary.
I have heard of contracts where the boarder is asked to set a dollar limit for care under these situations, so that the stable can authorize veterinary attention up to a set amount. However, that could be unrealistic. How can a veterinarian really lock in a veterinary bill to a set amount when complications and unforeseen problems happen?
If the owner has a policy of mortality insurance and major medical insurance on the horse, it is in the stable's best interest to know this. These insurance policies require the owner to give the company (at its designated 1-800 number for emergencies) immediate notice if the insured horse has become injured or ill. I have personally represented insurance companies-and won-in cases where the company was not given proper notice and properly denied the claim, paying nothing, when the horse died.
So, going back to the example of a colicking horse with an unavailable owner: The stable can use that 1-800 number, notify the insurance company for the unavailable owner, and keep the insurer advised of the horse's veterinary attention and condition. Those calls could make a major difference to the horse owner if the horse takes a turn for the worse.
- Side Charges.What if your warmblood is a "hard keeper" who requires extra rations of grain and hay just to stay fit? What if you want your horse pastured during the day in a private paddock instead of the stable's group pasture? What if your horse breaks down the pasture fencing and chews through the wood in his stall? What if your horse requires stable staff to blanket and unblanket him due to changing weather conditions? If any of these things happen, will the stable charge you extra?
Check the boarding contract to see if the stable will impose extra charges on you for these and other services, goods and repairs. Many of the stables I represent will attach a list of side charges in advance for its boarders to see. If the stable does not have this list of fees, ask that the contract include specifics of side charges, if any.
- Health Requirements.Horse owners can make sure that the stable sets reasonable health requirements for horses at the stable, especially those newly arriving. For example, stables can require health certificates before a new horse can enter the facility. Most of my clients simply require the owner to promise that the horse is current on immunizations and deworming.
PH:Are there any "red flags" we should look for in a contract that's given to us to sign?
Watch out for contracts that virtually give the stable full ownership of your horse if you have fallen behind on payments, with no advance notice to you. The fact is, most states have laws addressing this situation, and these laws require the stable to comply with the most basic and fundamental principles-proper notice before depriving someone of his or her personal property. Those laws were designed to be fair.
Contracts that instantaneously give the stable your horse, without enough advance notice to the boarder and fair procedures for a sale, I believe, are trouble. They might also be illegal.
PH:Now let's put the shoe on the other foot. We own a farm (but not a big, formal boarding facility) and are contemplating taking on a few boarders to help defray expenses and to have companions to ride with us. What parts of the boarding contract should be the most important to us?
The size of your operation really does not matter. Believe it or not, many of the elements of boarding contracts that the "big operators" use apply equally to the smaller operator.
Just like the big players, small stable operators want to be paid for their services, facilities and time. That is, the small boarding business operator can set forth due dates, late payment fees, and a lawful rate of interest on unpaid balances.
Since we recognize that small business is still "business," let me digress for a moment to discuss liability insurance. Many small boarding stable operators assume that they're covered under their homeowner's insurance policy. That's wrong. These policies usually have a "business pursuits" exclusion that would prevent coverage altogether if something wrong happens in the business setting, such as one of your two boarders were injured at your barn.
To avoid this problem, boarding stable operators of every size definitely should purchase a policy of insurance designed for business operations, such as a policy of Commercial General Liability Insurance. It's true that these types of liability insurance policies can be expensive, but the "sticker shock" can be overcome pretty quickly when you realize that the expense can be passed along.
As an example, let's say your commercial insurance costs $1,200 a year, which, of course, breaks down to $100 a month. If you have four boarders and you simply charge each boarder $25 more each month, you have recouped that cost.
PH:You spoke about the importance of good communication. What would be a good way to approach asking someone to sign a boarding agreement, especially if they're a friend or you think they may be offended and assume that the contract was because you don't trust them?
Everybody benefits from an agreement that has been confirmed in writing. Verbal agreements can be a problem because nobody can prove what was agreed upon.
For the boarder, a well-written boarding contract is especially beneficial because it can list services that the boarder expects to receive and that the stable has agreed to provide. If the stable promises to clean stalls once a day, fill water buckets four or five times a day, give free-choice hay, hold your horse for your farrier or vet (without charging you), and give your horse turnout each day except in inclement weather or excessively muddy conditions, the stable should not hesitate to put this in writing if you ask.
Even if the boarder and facility owner are good friends, the mere process of developing their written contract can be a wonderful opportunity to communicate about the services that the horse owner expects and what the stable, in turn, expects from the owner. You can write your agreement together now and avoid misunderstandings, bitter feelings, and possibly even a lawsuit in the future.
PH:What's your thought about the boarding contracts that you can buy in books?
In my opinion, contracts of any kind that are found in books, available online, or sold in stores are, at best, a starting point from which a person can develop a good one. I have never seen a contract from any of these sources that I have found satisfactory, and, in fact, several of the forms that I have seen are illegal.
One prime example concerns Equine Activity Liability Acts. Forty-six states now have some form of equine liability law on the books. Many of these laws directly affect boarding contracts by requiring them to include "warning" or other language. "One-size-fits-all" forms run a serious risk of failing to include this language. I have seen forms that include illegally high rates of interest that a stable will charge on unpaid balances, too. Waiver/release language, in the standardized forms I have seen, failed to meet requirements under several states' laws.
PH:Can you give us a "for instance" story where a contract was a benefit for both parties?
I laugh as I hear this question. Remember, I'm a lawyer, and people tend to call me when there's a problem.
People tell me they were satisfied with the detailed contracts I prepared for them because I got them thinking of problems that they'd never imagined were possible and finding ways to deal with these problems now-before the problems arose. That's what effective contracts do. Contracts, if done right, have the potential to avoid thousands of dollars in legal disputes.