By Armand Leone
An owner at my barn walked out on a horse ten months ago and has been unreachable since. I took over financial responsibility of the horse at that time. Do I have any legal rights to ownership considering the length of time I have been caring for the horse? If no, how do I go about assuming legal ownership without contact with the owner?
A barn owner dreads being left with an abandoned horse by an owner that owes bills for the horse’s expenses but can’t be found. The good news in your situation is that you have the horse. Once the horse leaves the property without payment, recovery is difficult, protracted, and uncertain, often leaving a barn owner wondering what could have been done differently to have avoided the loss. However, even though you have the horse, you can’t just sell it to pay the bills. The laws for selling a horse to pay for outstanding bills vary among the states. Consulting with an equine attorney is a prudent initial step and can save you aggravation, additional expenses and, most importantly, get the bill paid.
Most state laws allow you to assert a lien on the horse for unpaid bills. In New Jersey, the owner of a boarding stable has a lien on all animals on the property for unpaid board and maintenance expenses. The barn owner has the right to retain the horse until the debt is paid. Some state law even provides for a recover of money for on-going board, training, veterinarians’, blacksmiths’ services and other expenses. Under one state’s law, “other reasonable expenses” includes professional training to keep the horse’s value and showing to maintain the horse’s reputation as a competitive show horse.
Depending upon the time the horse has been left in the barn, the money owed and the lien can be quite large. It is essential to document and have proof of every expense associated with the horse and the ability to show why the expense was necessary.
There are 2 ways to recoup your money: 1) don’t let the horse leave the property until the bills are paid and 2) go through the legal process to sell the horse at auction. It would be unwise to do either without the advice of an experienced equine attorney. The auction must be a public auction. Notice of the sale must be published in a newspaper in the municipality where the stable is. There are other specific procedures that must be followed to sell the horse at auction, and failing to do so properly can both void the sale and lead to potential liability for the barn owner.
Once you have successfully negotiated the auction process, there are laws about how to distribute the proceeds. Again, the state laws vary widely, and proceeding without legal counsel is not advisable. One has conform to the statutory requirements to avoid any claims being made against you by the debtor. State laws differ in how the balance of the proceeds are dispersed. In New Jersey, the auction expenses are paid first, then the indebtedness is paid off and the balance, if there is any money left over, it goes to the owner of the horse. If the owner doesn’t claim the money after a certain period of time, it gets paid to the town where the stable is. In Kentucky, if the owner of the horse doesn’t claim the left over money after a year, it gets paid to the district school fund.
When all attempts to communicate with the horse’s owner fails and expenses keep mounting, the most important thing is to keep the horse on your property by asserting a horseman’s lien. If the owner abandons the horse, you need to follow the rules for selling it at auction as specified by your state’s law. Consulting with an equine attorney at the outset helps you to to protect your interests and again, most importantly, get paid.
Have questions or need legal help with your next horse transaction? Leone Equestrian Law is available for consultation at 201.444.6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit equestriancounsel.com or Leone Equestrian Law on Facebook for more information.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.