By Armand Leone & Jessica Choper
What’s The Stableman’s Lien?
A state law that allows a stable owner to keep possession of a horse whose owner has not paid for boarding and other services that are owed. It is used to prevent the horse from leaving the property until the indebtedness is satisfied. The law often provides a process for selling the horse at auction after due notice with the money owed being paid back first and any remainder to the owner.
Equestrian professionals get stuck with customers not paying their bills just like all other businesses, whether it is for costs associated with board, training, veterinarian, farrier care, and more. A delinquent client is a legitimate concern for any barn owner, trainer, or provider of veterinarian services. Maintaining a horse in proper condition, whether riding for pleasure or more competitively, is undeniably costly. First-time horse owners may not anticipate the potential costs associated with their new horse. When saddled with mounting bills, they may be unwilling or unable to pay. What should a provider of services do to help minimize the risk of not getting paid, and what options are available when payment is not forthcoming? This is a general guideline to help the equine professional and client anticipate problems before they arise and to mitigate damages before they become inexorable.
Optimally, prevention is best. A few basic and preliminary measures taken at the outset can help. An owner of an equine facility should require all new boarders to enter a boarding contract. In addition to the standard inclusions that address basic services provided and costs, and when payments for board, lessons, and other charges are due, it should also specify when a late fee will be imposed. Boarding agreements should allow for the stable owner and/or trainer to terminate the contract upon failure to make timely payment for services performed.
The boarding contract should explicitly reference the Stableman’s Lien statute (see sidebar for an explanation) in the state where the farm is located. Include a clause that upon non-payment of money owed beyond 30 days, the provider may exercise the option of terminating the contract and enforcing this lien. Another consideration to help minimize getting stuck with unpaid services is to require a reasonable deposit at the outset to protect the barn owner if non-payment for services occurs.
Publish a list of charges, communicate anticipated costs in advance when possible, and track expenses as they are incurred. Identifying the services provided and the date rendered, such as lessons, professional rides, medications, or grooming, can be helpful if the client fails to pay and questions the validity of an invoice. If a client fails to pay and disputes a bill, readily producing a detailed invoice to substantiate the charges can prove beneficial.
If a payment is overdue, speak to the client and try to negotiate a timely payment, documenting your efforts to resolve the matter. Assess each client’s history and make an educated decision whether the person is likely a deadbeat client or one who has consistently paid on time with the overdue payment representing the exception rather than the norm. Resolving unpaid bills directly with the client without resorting to costly legal action is optimal if a fair resolution can be achieved.
If payment is still not forthcoming after reasonably trying to resolve the matter, minimize losses by terminating the services provided. Stop teaching and training the client’s horse to prevent further bills from escalating. If the delinquent client has abandoned the horse in the stables and/or incurred a sizable bill, placing a stableman’s lien upon the horse may be a viable option. Depending on the money owed, the projected value of the horse, and the likelihood of the client having assets to satisfy the debt, preventing the horse from leaving the stables may be the wisest choice. It is important to consult with an attorney about your state’s statute to comply with requisite notice and procedural requirements.
Trainers, veterinarians, or farriers not paid for their services may also assert a lien upon the horse. Liens can vary greatly so check the state statute to determine issues such as the scope of the lien, when it can be asserted, the notice required, whether possession of the animal is a requisite, and the manner and mechanism of recovery. Many states give veterinarians a possessory lien, permitting veterinarians to keep possession of animal until the bill is paid. Requirements for both the sale of a horse for unpaid bills and the disposition of the horse if a buyer cannot be found is also variable. In Virginia, for example, the horse may be offered for adoption or euthanized if no purchaser is found.
States without a separate veterinarian or farrier lien may still protect them under a stableman’s lien. In New Jersey, the Stableman’s Lien Act grants a lien on horses left for board with a keeper of a livery stable and expansively defines the term keeper of a livery stable to include a trainer or any other person with a financial relationship with the owner of the horse. In South Carolina, the boarding lien statute provides in part that the owner of an animal boarding facility, at the end of an agreed upon term of boarding, will have a lien upon any animal left with him for upkeep, rest, and training until the cost of the upkeep, rest, and training has been paid by the owner of the animal.
A useful website to determine a state’s lien is the American Association for Horsemanship Safety (asci.uvm.edu/equine/law/), which provides a link to liens of each state for the care of horses and liens for services to horses. If the money owed remains unpaid despite best efforts to resolve the matter with the delinquent client, you should consult an attorney to discuss what your available legal recourse is.
Have questions or need legal help with your next horse transaction or equestrian business? Leone Equestrian Law is available 24/7 for confidential consultation at 201.444.6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit equestriancounsel.com or Leone Equestrian Law on Facebook for more information.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.