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Equine Law, Summer 2010

The Homeless Horse: Asserting An Stableman’s Lien

“Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” – W.C. Fields

While the horse is traditionally a grand and faithful companion, we find too often that its human owners are not. For a variety of reasons, stable and barn owners often find themselves keeping a horse long after the boarding payments have ceased. This is a difficult and frustrating situation which leaves the stable owner paying large sums of money to feed and care for a horse that they do not own, and are not able to utilize to generate income. Further, beyond being a financial burden, the horse can become a liability risk as its owners are no longer assuming responsibility for the animal. The stable owner has made phone calls and written demands with no results, and has a horse that no one wants to pay for, no one wants to pick up, and cannot be legally sold, but still requires food and care. So, what can be done?

A stableman’s lien is a simple and cost effective legal remedy for the above situation. Generally, a lien is the legal right to take and hold, or sell, property of a debtor to secure payment of their debt. In particular, Texas law provides a statutory stable keeper’s lien, also known as an “agister’s lien”:

(a) A stable keeper with whom an animal is left for care has a lien on the animal for the amount of charges for the care.

(b) An owner or lessee of a pasture with whom an animal is left for grazing has a lien on the animal for the amount of charges for the grazing.

Tex. Prop. Code §70.003.

This type of lien attaches to horses when a party leaves its horses in the care of another for boarding and/or grazing. These horses may be held for nonpayment. Further, the horses to which the lien attaches may be sold to collect the amount owed. However, this lien will not apply to the any articles of personal property left in the possession of the stableman, i.e. tack, but attaches only to the horses at issue. This includes other horses being boarded with the stableman, if one horse is being paid for but not the other, the lien may only attach to the specific horse for which board is unpaid.

While Texas provides this form of legal recovery without the filing of a lawsuit or intervention of local law enforcement, it is essential to strictly adhere to the statutory provisions in order to avoid civil liability. If a person is entitled to a lien under the statute, they must retain possession of the property for 60 days after the day that the charges accrue. A written request must be made to the owner to pay the unpaid charges due if the owner’s residence is in Texas and known. Then if the charges are not paid before the 11th day after the day of the request, the lienholder may, after 20 days notice, sell the property at a public sale.

The proceeds from sale are to be applied to the outstanding charges and the reasonable costs of holding the sale. Any excess proceeds must be paid to the horse’s owner. The law is clear that, while a stableman’s lien provides remuneration for services rendered, it does not allow for profit.

It is essential to note that the stableman’s lien will be lost if the stableman relinquishes possession of the horses. So while it may be tempting to drop the horse off, or unload it elsewhere, in order to “just be done with it,” it is essential to keep possession of the horses at issue to proceed with recovery under the lien. Therefore, when boarding charges are unpaid immediate action should be taken so that the 60 days of possession, required after the charges accrue, begins to run. Requests for payment of the outstanding amount should be made in writing and issued as soon as possible. While this may seem strict, keep in mind that the earliest the lien can be enforced by sale of the horse will be in approximately three months due to the statutory provisions.

Further, this type of lien is enforceable even where no oral or written boarding agreement exists. For the purposes of remuneration, a stableman is usually entitled to the reasonable value of his services. The “reasonable value” will be those commensurate with boarding services in the area where the services were provided.

Finally, in Texas the stableman’s lien only covers charges for the actual “care” of the horses. It has not been recognized to cover training services, show expenses, sales commissions or the like.

In addition to the stableman’s lien, Texas law also provides a breeder’s lien and a veterinarian’s lien to be applied in the appropriate circumstances.

A Note Regarding Oral Contracts

In the horse community many “contracts” are still done with a handshake. These verbal agreements are often friendly at inception but disagreeable in the enforcement. The failure of horse owners and service providers to reduce to writing the terms of their agreement is usually detrimental to both parties in the end. Too often in verbal communication we make assumptions regarding the intentions and comprehension of the other party. A number of people may be participating in the same verbal exchange, but, unwittingly, having completely different conversations. As the saying goes, “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” While oral contracts can be enforceable in Texas, it is a better practice to reduce your agreement to writing. In this context, even the most basic written agreement is better than none.

A Bit of Humor: “Unhorsemanlike” Behavior

In a victory for trail riders, an Arizona gentleman was convicted of disorderly conduct for what was essentially assault on an equine. In the case of State of Arizona v. Coates, a “road rage” battle between a jogger and a horseman resulted in legal consequences for the jogger. While the precipitating events are unclear, Mr. Coates was out jogging on the side of a private dirt road in Elgin, Arizona when he spied his neighbor riding his horse towards him on the same side of the road. Neither man yielded to the other, Coates then ran into the face of his neighbor’s horse. The unnamed neighbor attempted to turn his horse away in an attempt to calm it and avoiding the horse spooking, at which point Mr. Coates began shouting at him and shoving the horse’s head and neck. Worried that the horse would react and cause an accident, the neighbor swung the reins at Coates striking him twice on the shoulder and yelled at him to not try and spook the horse again. The neighbor proceeded to ride away with Coates running alongside, shouting at him and taking pictures on his cellular telephone.

Mr. Coates was later arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated harassment based on additional unrelated incidents. The charge of disorderly conduct stemming from this encounter was added to the indictment. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and appealed his conviction which was affirmed. Interestingly, part of the evidence presented against Coates was that he was “familiar with horses and their behavior, having been around them most of his life.” He had full knowledge that a horse could become frightened and throw its rider if disturbed. Arizona law does permit the placement of one’s hands on a horse to prevent collision and injury, but in his instance, the disorderly conduct occurred after the initial collision when Coates continued to yell and hit the horse after the initial contact.

Apart from the pure silliness of this case, it is reassuring to know that willfully endangering a horse and rider does have its legal consequences.