You know the scenario – Oh! You have a horse? I love horses! What color is it? Can I come out and ride sometime?
Now what do you do? You want to be a good and hospitable friend or relative, but you also want to keep your potential rider and your horse safe and not traumatized – and keep yourself free from the regret and legal liability that could come if they were to have a negative experience together.
Should you let someone ride your horse? If you are extremely conservative and want to avoid all potential liability, then the answer is no. But if you would like to provide the opportunity for this person to ride your horse if possible (and/or perhaps you need the help keeping your horse in top physical shape) then, like most everything with potentially serious legal ramifications, the answer is “it depends.”
Why is there no easy answer to whether you should let someone ride your horse? Because the answer will depend on many circumstances. A horse and rider combination should always be a good fit. A bad fit can spell disaster for you, your horse and/or your rider – and even perhaps bystanders – human and equine.
Before allowing anyone to ride your horse, the first thing you should do is check your insurance policies to see if they cover any damages that you, your rider or your horse may suffer during such a ride. Ordinary homeowners’ policies often do not provide liability coverage for you in these scenarios. There may be umbrella policies you can buy through equine membership organizations like the United States Equestrian Federation or the North Carolina Horse Council which cover these situations, but you need to read the policy to be sure you understand what it covers or, at a minimum, ask your insurance agent (preferably in writing so you have a record of the response).
Assuming you have insurance coverage for the activity, you should also have your rider sign a liability waiver and release. Such a waiver and release is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from legal liability in this scenario. In addition to having a signed waiver and release in hand, you can enjoy the benefits of the North Carolina Equine Liability Act if you post in a visible spot where your rider will see it (and you should point it out to them!) an equine liability sign/warning in the required statutory format (in NC you can purchase the signs at http://www.nchorsecouncil.com for a very reasonable price). The sign can provide liability protections extended by statute in North Carolina to “equine activity sponsors” and “equine professionals.” If the required sign is not posted, then you cannot claim the benefits of the liability limiting statute. Since the signs are inexpensive and easy to post, it makes sense to put up a few of these signs in prominent locations in your barn if they are not already posted.
Lastly, before putting your rider on your mount, you need to carefully evaluate your horse and the person who would like to ride your horse. Even if it is a family member and doing so will make you uncomfortable – you will need to ask this person some very direct questions. When you ask, always encourage him or her to be very conservative with his or her answers. Ideally, you could even have a form with questions listed and have this person complete it in his or her own handwriting and sign it. Your rider’s and your horse’s safety could depend on the accuracy of the answers given in response to your questions. Asking the right questions can also help protect you from legal liability in certain circumstances. Here are some examples of good questions to ask:
A. Preliminary Evaluations of Your Horse and the Proposed Rider:
What are the horse’s and the rider’s temperaments, amount of training (and in what discipline(s)), skill level, soundness, fitness, health, age and size?
- Temperament. The temperament of the horse AND the temperament of the rider are equally important. A spooky, tentative horse may not do well with a timid, frightful rider. Likewise, a sluggish, older horse may not move at all if you put a tentative 12 year old on her. Try to achieve good matches. Good matches have a better chance of creating a good experience and lower the chances of a legal dispute. Would your laid back 70 year old dad have an enjoyable (or safe) ride on a green horse which is spooky and nervous? Or maybe he would enjoy a little spark? Again, it depends. It is up to you to investigate what everyone’s expectations are about the ride and think about what situations are best for your horse and your rider in order to ensure the horse’s and the rider’s safety (and thus minimize legal liability if something goes wrong).
- Unique Circumstances. Also keep in mind that while your horse may have a calm temperament, long ago he may have had a bad experience that has left him with a unique fear (of tall men, children, umbrellas, plastic bags or something else), so consider those things too when deciding whether a particular rider is suitable for your horse. And remember to assess the mood of your horse and your rider at the time of the ride because everyone can have a bad day now and then. Consult with your trainer about what he or she feels your horse needs and take care not to put your horse or rider in situations where either would be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable situations can lead to injury which can lead to potential legal liability for you.
- Amount of Training & Discipline. A horse with very little training is never a good match for a rider with very little training. Also, a horse with a lot of training in a discipline other than the rider’s may be a bad match for that rider. Just because your rider won the last ten barrel racing championships in her state does NOT mean she is well qualified to ride a highly trained dressage horse. Personally, my favorite horse to ride is a horse which is well trained in my discipline – one who has done far more than I will ever ask him or her to do. In other words, I like for my horse to know more about my discipline than I do. Choosing that kind of mount helps to keep me safer than I would be in a scenario where I know more than the horse – because I am not a professional trainer who can help the horse learn. So remember to consider disciplines of the horse and rider before pairing them up – matching them can reduce the odds of your facing a legal dispute.
- Health & fitness level of horse and rider. This factor probably goes without saying, but if your horse is not sound or is sick or weak or recovering from illness or injury, do not put a rider on the horse without very careful consideration and consultation with your veterinarian and trainer. Likewise, if the person who would like to ride your horse is currently ill or injured or recovering from a recent illness or injury, do not allow them to ride your horse without careful consideration of the horse’s temperament (see above) and proof of the rider’s consultation with the rider’s medical advisors as to the suitability of the rider for riding. As a lawyer, I would prefer that all my clients avoid allowing sick or injured riders ride and avoid having anyone at all ride a sick or injured horse because it seems like a recipe for legal liability if further injuries take place during the ride. If your rider has disabilities of one kind or another, work carefully with him or her and his or her physicians to make sure that the circumstances of any proposed ride will keep the rider safe and be comfortable for your horse as well. Many, many individuals with physical, cognitive or emotional challenges have enjoyed and do everyday enjoy successful rides on horses, so such challenges are not necessarily an obstacle to the ride. Just take appropriate safety precautions and stay informed of all relevant information in these situations.
- Size, Age and Strength Pairings. Think about the size, age and strength of your horse and your rider. If your rider is a very tall or very large person, putting him or her on a pony is probably not a great idea. That being said, there are many, many different “expert” opinions in the horse community about what appropriate weight and height limits are for horses, but the best advice is to investigate a few of those height/weight charts (most of which can be found online) – or ask your vet, use common sense and if you are not sure, do not risk it. You do not want to embarrass your rider or injure your horse by seating a person in the saddle who is too large for your horse. It could also be dangerous for your horse and/or the rider if you have a very large horse with a back so wide that were you to seat a tiny person on its back the rider’s heels would not even reach below the saddle, keeping the horse from feeling important cues from the rider’s leg. Also, if the rider does not have good physical strength, controlling a very large and strong horse with reins could be challenging or even impossible. Age is a tricky consideration because there are no general rules until you get on the ends of the age spectrum. While very young children and horses and much older adults and horses may be best suited for limited, assisted riding, the range of ability, strength and temperament makes age much less relevant to your analysis than you might think – both with regard to people and horses. Rather than focus too much on the age of a potential rider or horse, I would recommend that you focus more on the other factors discussed in this section A when deciding whether a rider and horse pairing is appropriate or is likely to result in injury to either.
B. Details of the Ride Itself:
- Location, location, location. Where would the ride take place? An arena? A riding ring? A pasture? With or without other loose horses present? Along a public road? Along a level, wide and easy trail? Along a steep, treacherous trail? Or somewhere else?
- Environment at the location. As we know, the more chaotic or dangerous the riding environment, the higher the odds are of injury and resulting legal liability. Likewise, if the ride takes place away from your barn, there is the potential of more third parties becoming involved if there is an incident.
- The audience. Would an equine professional, you and/or anyone else be in the vicinity during your rider’s ride on your horse? From a legal liability perspective, I would advise never, ever allowing someone to ride your horse without you present unless it is pursuant to a lease or other legal arrangement, you have confirmed insurance coverage for you and the horse, the rider has signed a waiver and release and you are very comfortable with the horse/rider pairing. The next best thing to your being present would be to have a trainer who is very familiar with the horse be present during the ride. The bottom line is that it would be a very bad idea to allow a person to ride your horse for the first time alone with no one else present. If something happens and no one is present to relay the course of events, that can potentially be detrimental to the health of the horse and the rider and make any necessary determination of potential legal liability very difficult if a problem arises.
- Safety Considerations. Absolutely require everyone who sits on your horse to wear an ASTM/SEI certified riding helmet. I understand that it may not be legally required in some situations and that certain riders may feel that a helmets cramp his or her style, but when it comes to someone else riding your horse, you simply must ignore this resistance and require that they wear an ASTM/SEI certified equestrian riding helmet if they want to even sit on your horse. Having this requirement in place and enforced will almost certainly help you from a legal liability perspective should a rider be injured.
- Clear the Decks. Keeping other loose horses out of the area where your rider will be riding your horse is also a good idea. We are all familiar with a horse’s herd mentality and rather than risk the loose horses’ behavior influencing your horse’s behavior, it is easier and safer to remove that variable from the equation in order to give your horse and rider the best odds of an enjoyable ride – and for you to lower the odds of your facing legal liability for a bad situation.
If you determine your proposed rider is an appropriate match for your horse after considering and addressing all of the above issues, try to choose a place where there is plenty of room, a calm environment (away from construction and bad weather, for example) and a time when everyone (horse and rider) is well rested, well fed and adequately prepared for the ride. Tell your rider about any quirks he or she may need to know about your horse that will make his or her ride more enjoyable and successful and keep an eye out (or have your trainer keep an eye out) for the whereabouts of your rider and your horse so that if anything goes wrong, you will know quickly and you or your trainer can get help on site as soon as possible – whether for the rider or for the horse.
Hopefully these factors are useful to you when considering, from a legal perspective, whether to allow someone to ride your horse. It is a wonderful thing when you have a good and trustworthy person who is well suited for your horse available to ride your horse for you! He or she can be a huge help to you by riding when you may not otherwise be available.
Good luck, stay safe and happy riding!