Making it Legal: Equine Lease, Sales, and Boarding Contracts

Be sure to create and sign contracts for leases, sales, and boarding

In 2014 Robert and Tracy Inge made a verbal agreement to give their horse CeeMee Streak to the owner of a South Carolina stable who operated a therapeutic riding program. A year later Tracy Inge saw a photograph of CeeMee Streak on the stable’s social media page. The horse, who was blind in one eye but otherwise in excellent physical condition when the Inges gave her to the program, appeared to be undernourished. The couple’s daughter subsequently visited the animal and allegedly discovered that she was not only thin but also suffering from a serious saddle sore.

When the Inges told the barn operator that they would take the mare back, she refused, and a legal battle for custody ensued. In May 2015, a South Carolina District Court judge signed a restraining order requiring the stable operator to return the horse to the Inges.  

But the trip to court and associated costs could have been avoided entirely, Robert Inge recalls, if the original agreement had been made in writing.

“The best advice I could give anyone is to have a contract,” he says.

Sorting Through Sales Contracts

Most people expect to sign a written contract when they buy a car, purchase a house, or rent an apartment. But horse owners might not realize that any equine-related transaction should be covered by a written contract, too—even if it does not involve pricy sport, racing, or show horses that have impressive pedigrees or litanies of championship titles.

“In fact, those $5,000 sales are the ones I get a lot of phone calls about,” says equine attorney Julie Fershtman, JD, who’s based in Southfield, Michigan.  

That lack of written documentation is generally due to the fact that many owners either don’t know what equine sales, leasing, boarding, or training contracts should look like, or they do not know how to effectively use those documents if they have them.

Fershtman says equine purchase or sale contracts are relatively straightforward. At a minimum, they should include a description of the horse and whether the animal is registered with a breed or discipline organization. If so, she says, the contract should list the appropriate breed registries, along with the horse’s corresponding registration numbers. The seller should also specify when the buyer will receive transferred registration papers.

Discussing contracts
Purchase and sale contracts should include a promise that the seller owns the horse and has the legal authority to sell it, says Fershtman. The documents should also include the price the buyer has agreed to pay the seller for the horse, the date of the payment, and if the payment has been made in full. If the payment has not been made in full, the contract should stipulate how much of the payment sum is unpaid and when full payment is expected.

Finally, she says basic sales contracts should be dated and include both the buyer’s and seller’s signatures.

But sales and purchase contracts can get even more complicated, Fershtman adds. More specific contracts can include provisions covering whether commissions should result from the sale, who is responsible for paying them, and whether anyone has first-right-of-refusal regarding the horse’s sale. Contracts might also include provisions stating whether sales taxes apply to the transaction and who is responsible for paying them, she says.

At the same time, no matter what else they build into their contracts, many prospective owners want to know that the horse they purchase is healthy. Some also want to know what kind of health issues—if any—the animal has had in the past. Thus, purchase and sale agreements might also include a record of when a prepurchase veterinary examination should take place and whether a deposit on the animal pending the examination is refundable.

Warranties regarding the horse’s medical history, such as previous injury, lameness, or illness, can be another matter. Fershtman says sellers might avoid offering such warranties, while buyers might want them included in their purchase contracts. Either way, state laws dictate how these provisions can be worded. Still others flat-out require the seller to make such disclosures.

“Keep in mind that in some states, such as California, Kentucky, and Florida (and possibly more), specific seller disclosure laws exist regarding equine transactions,” Fershtman says. “People in those states should be aware of these laws and comply with their requirements.”

Once the sale transaction has been completed, the new owner has full legal control of and responsibility for the animal. How that plays out, however, is not always the way the new owner imagines it.

Dianne Welde purchased her Paint gelding Ringo from a local woman whose daughter had grown up riding the horse.

“Ringo’s former owner emailed me and asked if her daughter could ride the horse about once a month,” Welde recalls. “And, at first, I agreed.”

But as Welde became more accomplished the in saddle and Ringo became increasingly accustomed to her riding aids and routine, it became obvious that allowing the child to ride the horse was short-circuiting Welde’s training progress.

“The girl rode the horse much differently than I did.” Welde says. “It just wasn’t going to work.”

So Welde stopped answering emails from the former owner requesting that her daughter ride the horse and, “after a while, I just didn’t hear from her anymore,” she says.

Welde’s refusal to respond to the former owner eventually resolved the situation. However, Fershtman says a contract might be have been necessary at the stime of sale if the former owner insisted on her daughter’s continued use of the horse.

“If the previous owner wants to use the horse, he or she needs the seller’s permission,” Fershtman says. “If the previous owner wants a more sustained use of this horse, then maybe the parties could discuss the new owner entering into a lease agreement with the former owner.”

Also keep in mind there are no guarantees that a new owner won’t sell the horse, give it away, maltreat it, or even send it to slaughter.

“Here’s how I view the situation,” Fershtman says. “The point of a sale, whether the subject of the sale is a horse or an automobile, is for the seller to relinquish title, custody, control, and rights to the buyer. After the sale has legally concluded, it follows that the seller should have no right, without the buyer’s permission, to do anything with the object sold.”

The Legalities of Leases

Sales are not the only equine-related transactions that benefit from written contractual agreements. For some owners, making a horse available for lease is another way to derive financial benefit from the animal without selling it outright. At the same time, a lease allows riders to try out a new discipline or take on the responsibilities of horse ownership without actually purchasing an animal. Either way, says attorney Kathleen Tabor, JD, of Baltimore, Maryland, lease contracts are intended to protect the horse owner as well as the person who leases the animal.

“A well-drafted, customized agreement that treats all parties fairly will go a long way in managing unforeseen issues and preserving relationships,” Tabor says. “The horse industry is small—people are going to see each other again.”

Tabor says lease options can include a free lease, partial-use lease, full lease, or a lease with an option to buy. Free leases, partial leases, or leases for a specific purpose, such as for lessons, describe how the horse will be used and pertinent ­payment terms. Leases with an option to buy designate the animal’s sale price and what part of monthly leasing fees contribute to the eventual purchase. Contracts should specify upfront what kind of category the lease falls under.

At the very minimum, says Tabor, a lease should include the names of the horse owner and the person who leases the animal. It should also include a detailed physical description of the animal, when the lease begins, when it ends, and the amount the lessee will pay to the owner. The contract will also specify whether the lessee is responsible for the horse’s veterinary, farrier, and/or general care.

If the animal is boarded, the person leasing the animal is generally responsible for paying the barn operator’s fees, and it’s important that he or she notify the operator that the horse is leased.

Contracts for Care

Speaking of boarding, agreements also are critical for specifying barn operator and horse owner expectations.

Clarissa Cupolo owns a boarding farm in Bradenton, Florida. “In a basic full-board situation, a barn operator will clean stalls, provide bedding, feed, and hay, will operate a turnout schedule, and feed the horses,” she says. “Owners are responsible for paying farrier, veterinary, and training fees,” as is the case with all types of board.

Full board, of course, is the most expensive option, but some barn operators also offer cheaper alternatives, including partial and self-care. Partial-care board includes varying degrees of staff involvement, depending on the farm’s policies, and self-care is exactly as it sounds, with the boarding operator simply supplying a place for the horse to stay, and the owner supplying the care.

However, “whatever the contract, the barn owner is responsible for the horse’s care or for any violation of local animal cruelty law,” Tabor says.

“If you have a contract with the boarder that the boarder is responsible for feeding and caring for the horse and the boarder does not pay or does not show up to take care of the horse, then you are responsible,” she adds.

Basic boarding contracts generally do not include horse training. However, ­owners must be aware that trainers frequently require written contracts for horses placed in their care, says Arabian horse trainer Jill Girardi-Thomas, who’s based in Franklin, Tennessee. Those contracts spell out a description of the training the horse is to receive, training-related fees, and fees pertaining to general boarding if the horse will reside at the farm where it is being trained.

“(The contract) also says that I can call a veterinarian or a farrier if I need to,” Girardi-Thomas says.

In addition, some contracts specify the length of time the horse will remain at the training barn.

“Some trainers will have contracts that say the horse must be with them for six months or a year,” Girardi-Thomas says. “Some don’t do that; you can take your horse back anytime you choose.”

Take-Home Message

Whether it covers sales and purchases, leases, or training, Tabor believes owners should exercise caution when they choose or execute any written contract.

“First of all, don’t take contracts out of books, and don’t taken them off the internet unless you know what every word of that contract means,” Tabor says. “Also, your attorney should review any document before you sign it.”

She also recommends choosing a lawyer who is familiar with how the horse industry works. “Remember, a well-­drafted document customized to the particular needs of the parties will help you manage any unforeseen risks or serve you well in court if you should find yourself before a judge explaining your side of a dispute,” she says.