Give me back my horse!

10 03 2010

As I continue my representation of horse owners in North Carolina, I am beginning to realize how often possession of the horse is the issue, whether it’s getting possession, finding someone to take possession or keeping someone from taking possession – and how third parties unwittingly get stuck in the middle of these disputes and undoubtedly wish they hadn’t!

Recently I was engaged by a very nice couple from the northeast to help them get their horse back from their trainer.  The trainer had moved the horse and they weren’t sure where the horse was.  The relationship with the trainer had deteriorated significantly into screaming matches between the owners and the trainer, with the precious daughter who loved and showed the horse getting caught in the crossfire.  The couple was upset, said that the trainer had threatened them that they would never see their horse again and they wanted me to get an emergency court order forcing the trainer to give up possession of the horse to them. 

Now all of us who are “horse people” know how emotional we get about our mounts.  We love them, probably too much, and treat them sometimes like they are a pet or a child, which we know objectively that they aren’t – but we can’t help it.  So, when someone threatens to take our “baby” from us, we flip out.  It’s understandable, but it’s something that all of us must guard against because that kind of raw emotion causes us to do things that aren’t rational and may not be in the best interests of the horse or ourselves, not to mention others caught in the fray. 

Some trigger-happy lawyers might burst into the courtroom, spending tons of the clients’ money and causing a storm of activity and emotion.  And that fuss might make the clients feel better or vindicated for a little while.  But once the reality of the cost and the emotional exhaustion set in they will probably realize that the drama wasn’t really necessary – 99% of the time.  And it’s likely that a court is NOT going to order the horse returned without substantial proof – proof which is often hard to produce on a moment’s notice.  For example, in the case I’m talking about, the trainer had possession of the horse’s registration papers and the Bill of Sale where the owners purchased the horse.  It takes a while to re-create these kinds of documents and they are what you’re going to need to convince a judge to order a horse returned to you – maybe.  If the trainer can show that you owe him or her boarding fees or training fees then there is a good argument that the trainer may have a lien on the animal to the extent of those unpaid fees.   Such a lien will likely cause a judge not to order the animal returned until the debt underlying that lien is paid in full.

Back to the story.  After I got all the facts and was formally engaged by the owners I got the name and number for the trainer with whom they were battling and just called him, telling him I had been retained by the owners and was on a peace mission to see if we couldn’t get the matter resolved without having to get nastier than things already were.  Lo and behold, the trainer was a very nice guy from the western part of the state and really felt bad about the whole situation.   I was able to defuse the situation such that my clients paid the past due fees and he had a neutral driver deliver the horse to a neutral place for the owners to pick up.  It all worked out fine without a huge legal battle.  Saved everyone a ton of money on legal fees, which is always good, even for me.  Folks think lawyers just want to run up legal bills but most of us really don’t, because if you get what you need without doing that, you’ll recommend us to the next person who needs help.  And lawyers that do “run up the bill” usually end up with clients who are very unhappy and that’s not good for the lawyer, no matter how much money is involved.

The bottom line in the situation I was handling was that the owners were from the northeast and from a very different background where negotiations and communications generally were handled differently than they are typically handled by trainers native to North Carolina.  Each had unwittingly made the other mad without intending to and then things just snowballed because of what they both thought the other one was doing or meant to do. 

Lessons to be learned:

1.  Be aware of your audience when communicating about your horse and don’t hesitate to make your expectations clear up front in a gentle and friendly way.  It’s really true that, as we say in the South, “you get more with honey than vinegar.” 

2.  Put things in writing, for heaven’s sake.  I do believe that the horse industry is one of the most undocumented industries in the world, for various reasons, but oral agreements are recipes for disaster that you can easily avoid.  Better to have a lawyer help you document, but even a handwritten note signed by both sides is often better than nothing written at all.

3.  Keep in YOUR possession the original (or at least a copy, if the trainer must hold the original) of your horse’s ownership papers (registration papers, Bill of Sale, Coggins, etc.).

4.  Remember the horse is not a pet, not a child and try to maintain some sense of objectivity when dealing with disputes involving your barn, your trainer, etc.  If you can’t seem to maintain a sense of professionalism, call me at 919-881-2206 or another equine lawyer for help in handling the matter.  Oftentimes the lawyer, although an expense for you, can resolve the matter more quickly that you will be able to and sometimes for very little in the way of fees.  My fees in handling the return of the horse described above were less than $500.

So the happy ending to the story is that the trainer got paid, the owners and their sweet daughter got the horse back and no one spent a fortune on lawyers!

Dottie Burch

dburch@rl-law.com

Ragsdale Liggett PLLC (www.rl-law.com)

(919) 881-2206

**Note:  of course the facts and names in the above story have been altered somewhat to protect my client’s privacy and preserve any privileged information.  But the essence of the story is there and the lessons to be learned remain the same.

If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. You can check out our firm’s Equine Law Group at www.rl-law.com if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories, this blog is also an advertisement for legal services.  I have to tell you that in bold, says the State Bar.

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