A detailed and thorough boarding contract is a must for any facility.
Everyone who boards even just one horse should have a written boarding contract. Why? Simply put, a contract can prevent misunderstandings and limit liability. Even the best of friends can disagree about the terms of a verbal arrangement. And it only takes one accident to result in a lawsuit.
One of the most important functions of any contract is to avoid misunderstandings, and horse boarding contracts are no exception. Even the simplest boarding contract usually specifies what the monthly boarding fee is and when it’s due. But most don’t state what that board amount actually includes. In such situations questions often arise, sometimes leading to hard feelings on both sides, and even a negative impact on the boarding stable’s business.
For example, let’s say a boarding stable typically feeds two flakes of grass hay twice a day. Most of the boarded horses do very well on this diet. But one boarder has an older Thoroughbred that’s a hard keeper, and he’s clearly losing weight. The boarder discusses the problem with the stable manager, who agrees the horse looks too thin. The stable manager tries to be accommodating, and she gives the boarder a choice she thinks is reasonable: pay extra each month for more hay, or provide concentrated feed for the horse. The boarder is a bit offended, because she thinks full care board should include all the hay her horse needs, and it seems she’s already paying a lot. Irritated, she resists the idea of paying the stable even more money, so she buys concentrated feed and weight-gain supplements, and asks the stable to feed them for her. The stable manager agrees, but then later gets upset because the feeding staff complain to her about the extra time they spend every day measuring out feed and supplements and answering questions. Bad feelings increase as other boarders start asking the barn to give their horses extra feed and supplements. Eventually, the stable decides to raise board for everyone to cover its increased labor costs, and some boarders decide to leave.
In the above example, if the stable’s contract had stated full care board includes two flakes of hay fed twice daily, the boarder probably would have been more open to the idea of paying additional money for additional hay. And if the contract had stated the stable charges extra to feed outside hay, grain or supplements, the boarder would have expected to pay for this service.
While popular mythology suggests liability releases “aren’t worth the paper they’re written on”, nothing could be further from the truth. A good liability release and detailed contract can provide the basis for an “assumption of the risk” defense to a negligence lawsuit.
For example, let’s say a boarding barn has an outbreak of strangles. The stable manager immediately seeks veterinary advice and puts procedures in place to minimize the spread of the disease. Still, despite the barn’s best efforts, 20 boarded horses eventually contract strangles. One becomes severely ill and has to be hospitalized, resulting in a $10,000 bill. The boarder doesn’t have major medical insurance on the horse, and can’t afford to pay the bill herself. She assumes the stable has insurance, so decides to sue it for the hospital bill, alleging that it didn’t have proper quarantine procedures in place for incoming horses. In the stable’s defense, it produces the contract that the boarder signed when she brought her horse to the stable. In the contract is a very detailed liability release in which the boarder agrees to hold the stable blameless for a laundry list of specific risks, including that her horse “may catch contagious conditions from other horses”. Also in the contract is the stable’s vaccination policy, which recommends that boarders either vaccinate their horses for strangles, or have their horses tested for strangles antibodies. The boarder did not vaccinate her horse or have him tested. The court is very likely to find the boarder assumed the risk her horse would catch strangles (a very common and contagious equine disease) when she took him to the boarding stable, and that the stable has no financial responsibility to her.
At a minimum, a boarding contract should address the following liability issues:
• Horse injury and death: What are the risks of bringing any horse to a boarding stable? Are there any risks particular to this boarding stable? Does the boarder agree to assume those risks? Has she inspected the stable facilities and does she agree they are safe for her and her horses? Does she agree that she is responsible for insuring her horses for major medical and mortality? Does the boarder agree to hold the stable and its owners and employees harmless if her horses are injured or die?
• Boarder injury and death: What are the risks of riding and being around horses generally? Are there any risks particular to this boarding stable? What are the increased risks resulting from failure to wear safety helmets and other protective attire? Does the boarder agree to assume those risks? Does she agree to hold the stable and its owners and employees harmless if she is injured or dies?
• Personal property damage and loss: What are the risks of bringing tack, horse trailers and other personal property to a boarding stable? Are there any risks particular to this stable? Does the boarder agree to assume those risks? Does she agree she is responsible for insuring her personal property? Does she agree to hold the stable and its owners and employees harmless if the boarder’s personal property is damaged or lost?
• State equine activity statutes: If the state where the boarding stable is located has an equine activity statute, the boarding contract should include any language the statute requires. Note that some states also require the posting of certain signs on the stable property.
• Third-party lawsuits: If a third party connected with a boarder, such as her health insurance company or a guest or family member, sues the stable, does the boarder agree to pay for the stable’s legal defense and any judgment against it?
Planning for Problems
Despite having a boarding contract with very clear and detailed terms, problems can still arise. For that reason, a good boarding contract should include terms describing what happens when there is a problem.
• Termination: How much notice must the stable or boarder give before they can terminate the boarding contract? Must the notice be in writing? Is there a shorter notice period if the termination is for good cause – for example, if the boarder isn’t paying? Or, if the boarder has paid board beyond the termination date, is she entitled to a refund? Can she remove her horses if she hasn’t paid her board bill in full?
• Abandonment: If the boarding contract termination date has come and gone, and the boarder’s horses are still at the stable, what options does the stable have? Must it rely on state lien laws, or do the stable and boarder agree to a different resolution process?
• Venue: If the parties need to bring suit to enforce the contract, where can they do it? This provision is especially important when the stable and its boarders are located in different counties or states.
• Fees and costs: If the parties sue to enforce the contract, can the winner collect their attorneys’ fees and costs from the loser? In most states, unless a contract specifically provides for the award of attorneys’ fees and costs, each party to a lawsuit must pay their own costs and fees, regardless of who wins.
Where to Get a Good Boarding Contract
Drafting a boarding contract involves great care and consideration, as well as trying to anticipate what might happen. And if you need to rely on your boarding contract, any little mistake or omission can present a real problem, often an expensive one. For that reason, unless you’re an attorney, drafting your own boarding contract is almost always a mistake. This is true even when you use samples of other boarding contracts – not only do you have no idea who drafted those contracts (and whether they knew what they were doing), you also have no idea whether the barns that use those contracts have ever had to enforce them.
Boarding contract forms are a cost-effective choice for situations where the cost of having an attorney draft a customized contract just isn’t feasible. Like one-size clothing, form contracts are more like “one size fits some”, so the form’s user should be aware that it isn’t likely to be a perfect fit for their own situation. And quality varies widely among legal forms of all types, but especially among equine legal forms. Before buying or downloading a form, carefully investigate who wrote that form – were they an attorney? Did they know anything about horses? Does the forms provider offer a guarantee or any other assurance that they will meet the stable’s satisfaction?
The best boarding contract will arise from talking to an equine attorney about your specific needs, and asking him or her to draft a customized contract for you. An equine attorney has specialized knowledge not only about the law as it relates to horses, but also about horses in general – and that’s invaluable in drafting a boarding contract. If you don’t have access to an equine attorney, your family attorney can assist you in drafting a contract that is far better than what you would produce on your own. After all, an attorney has had years of training and experience in contract drafting. And if the contract turns out to be defective, you have someone other than yourself to blame.
Commonly Overlooked Boarding Contract Terms
Bedding: Does board include bedding, and if so, what type? Are there any limits on how much bedding the stable provides? Can boarders supply their own bedding, and if so, what types of bedding does the stable allow, and is there any storage for it?
Stall and paddock cleaning: Does board include stall and paddock cleaning, or is the boarder responsible for that? If the boarder is responsible, how often does she have to clean, and can she hire someone to do it for her?
Turnouts: Does board include turnouts? If not, does the stable offer this service, and if so, what extra charges apply? Are turnouts solo or in groups, and will the stable put on and remove boots for turnout? If the boarder is responsible for turnouts, where and when can horses be turned out?
Blanketing: Does board include blanketing and unblanketing? If not, does the stable offer this service, and if so, what extra charges apply?
Nutritional supplements: Does board include feeding nutritional supplements? If not, does the stable offer this service, and if so, do any extra charges apply? Is the boarder required to supply the nutritional supplements? Must the nutritional supplements be packaged a certain way, such as in SmartPaks or baggies labeled with the horse’s name?
Medications: Will the stable administer medications to boarders’ horses? If so, under what conditions, and will any extra charges apply?
Temporary absences: When boarders take horses to shows or clinics, or are otherwise absent but plan to return, are they required to pay full board while they’re gone? If they’re gone for an extended period, will the stable hold a particular stall until they return? If so, is there an extra charge?
Outside trainers and instructors: Does the barn allow boarders to bring in outside trainers and instructors? If so, what conditions, such as insurance and liability releases, apply?
Barn rules: What are the barn’s rules? Does the boarder agree to follow them?
Rachel Kosmal McCart is an equine attorney and the founder of Equine Legal Solutions, PC. A lifelong horsewoman, she competes in three-day eventing and is licensed to practice in California, New York, Oregon and Washington. Equine Legal Solutions is a full-service equine law firm and also offers a wide selection of ready-to-use equine legal forms, including boarding contracts, at equinelegalsolutions.com.