The Mane Point: a legal blog for smart horses and their people
By Allison J. Farrell of Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC on 02/21/2022
When a Horse Causes Damage

Owning horses can bring amazing experiences. They are a conduit of physical activity, showmanship, sportsmanship, and therapeutic connections. Caring for horses is richly rewarding. Except for when it isn’t. As large animals with minds of their own, they are capable of causing damage or injury. What can you do when a horse causes damage?

Image of a horse with a stick in its mouth, representing how equine attorney Allison J. Farrell of Jenkins Fenstermaker helps clients manage the fallout when a horse causes damage.

The vast majority of states, including West Virginia (WV), Pennsylvania (PA), and Ohio (OH), have passed equine liability laws to protect horse owners from liability for damage caused by a horse unless the harm caused was outside the realm of what would be expected involving a horse. Here, WV equine lawyer Allison J. Farrell overviews the factors surrounding equine property damage, providing helpful guidance for prevention and mitigation of liability in WV, PA, and OH.

Who Is Responsible When a Horse Causes Damage?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. In other words, taking measures to prevent the possibility of your horse causing damage is the best way to protect yourself. This includes ensuring that the horse is properly taken care of, the stables are in good condition, riders are adequately trained and experienced in handling the animals, tack is in good working order, and stable staff and handlers are well trained to ensure that the animals cannot get loose.

In West Virginia, “horsemen” are shielded from liability for damage caused by the inherent risks and dangers of participating in equine activities under the Equestrian Activities Responsibilities Act so long as they follow the directives that the Act requires. However, more culpable conduct—such as negligent conduct for which the horseman bears more fault—is a different story. Understanding the types of damage a horse can cause and when statutory immunity is unavailable can help mitigate against liability.

Types of Harm Caused by Horses

Animals as large and powerful as horses can cause significant damage if left to their own devices. Diligent owners, caretakers, and other agents take great pains to protect the horse, its rider, and anything or anyone else in the vicinity from being hurt by the horse. But even with the finest of prevention measures in place, the unpredictable can happen, and a horse can wreak havoc.

As a liability attorney for horse damage in WV, OH, and PA, and a horsewoman myself, I have seen and heard many stories that many may think are unbelievable. Here are some common scenarios:

  • A horse at a competition escapes its handler, breaks the facility’s fence, and damages an attendee’s vehicle.
  • A horse boarded at a third party’s stable injures another horse when pastured together.
  • A horse unexpectedly throws a rider during a riding lesson, and the rider suffers injuries requiring medical treatment.

In each situation, the injured party may seek to hold the handler, owner, or other agent of the owner responsible for the harm caused by the animal. Depending on the facts in the case, the equine liability act in the state where the damage occurred may shield the accused from liability. But not always!

Are You Liable When Your Horse Causes Damage in WV, PA, or OH?

When a horse damages someone else’s property or causes injury, identifying how the horse was allowed to cause the damage will help to determine who should be held responsible, if anyone. In West Virginia, for example, anyone engaging in equestrian activities, whether or not for profit, may be found liable for damage caused by the horse, but only if the damage resulted from that person’s or business’s deliberate conduct (willful and wanton conduct) or lack of care that disregarded others’ lives or safety (negligence).

Whether the conduct that allowed the damage to occur requires evaluation of the circumstances that led to the damage-causing incident. Did the equine business employ improperly trained workers or trainers? Did an employee leave the horses unsecured and unattended? The answers to these and related questions help evaluate the owner or equine business owner’s potential liability under the WV equine liability act.

If you operate an equine business, proper training and vetting of employees are  critical. You also need to know state-specific requirements for signage and obtaining written waivers by those using your equine facilities and ensure you have adequate and appropriate liability insurance. An equine lawyer can help you evaluate whether your current risk management practices will protect you.

Who Do You Turn to When a Horse Causes Damage? 

Determining your liability in WV, PA, or OH for horse damage can be trickier than an equine agility competition. A thorough evaluation of all the circumstances that led to the horse’s ability to cause damage will help to determine whether you as the owner, facilities manager, or rider could be responsible for those damages.

If you own horses or operate or work in an equine business, learn what you can do in advance to mitigate  liability for horse-related damages. And when a horse causes damage, call an experienced equine attorney right away. WV equine lawyer Allison J. Farrell at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC’s Clarksburg office uses her professional and horsewoman experience to help WV, PA, and OH horse owners, stable owners, and equestrian organizations. To talk to Allison, complete this contact form or call (304) 521-6120.