What do horse trainers and automobile mechanics have in common? Nothing. Cars can be fixed, but some horses seem virtually impossible to break. Mechanics usually can estimate the time and cost needed to restore a car to good performance, but few horse trainers can estimate how much time it will take to turn a horse into a polished performance prospect. have you ever heard of a “six month/6,000 mile warranty” from a horse trainer?
The trainer/customer relationship creates fertile ground for several types of disputes, including:
A horse can become ill or lame while in the trainer’s care, but the trainer might not notify the owner before deciding to seek (or not seek) veterinary attention.
A horse owner, after visiting the trainer’s facility a few times but not seeing his horse actively involved in training, might assume that the trainer has done nothing to earn her money and, on the basis, refuse to pay her.
After years of training and thousands spent in training fees, the owner might receive long-overdue news from the trainer: the horse is simply not capable of being trained for the activities the owner desired.
These were real disputes, and the people involved in them seriously considered pursuing legal action. However, many disputes can be avoided. Here are some suggestions to help trainers and their clients work better, address problems, and possibly keep problems from occurring:
- Discuss Goals. Why wait before discussing training goals? The best time to start is before the trainer/client relationship begins. Maybe the client wants a hot-off-the-track Thoroughbred to become a competitive Class A-caliber Jumper. Maybe the client believes his slow-legged horse can become a top-notch Western Pleasure winner. Maybe neither of these clients wants to keep the horse in training for more than two months. Experience might tell the trainer from the start that the client’s goals are unreasonable or unattainable.Certainly, trainers may have a vested interest in continuing mutually-beneficial training relationships but would be wise to speak up promptly if a horse seems incapable of achieving the customer’s goals. Communication will give the client the chance to decide which direction to take — sell the horse, “take a gamble” with more training, pursue different goals, or get another opinion. Communication can also help prevent bitter feelings in the future.Communication can benefit everyone and will likely help avoid legal disputes. Generally speaking, the law expects trainers to give “reasonable care” to horses kept in their care, custody, and control. If it turns out that the trainer has, acting on his own, exercised poor judgment and jeopardized the health and well-being of a horse in training, the owner might assert that the horse was denied reasonable care. Under these circumstances, the owner might even seek legal action against the trainer for the loss or devaluation of the trained horse.
- Promises. Promises of future performance are likely to create unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, trainers can fairly promise that they will use their best efforts to train a horse to satisfy their clients’ goals.
- Communication, Especially When Problems Arise. What if the customer’s horse becomes injured or ill while in the trainer’s care? When this happens, the trainer would be wise to communicate promptly with the customer, unless the customer already gave the trainer full discretion to handle everything on his or her behalf.
- Contracts. A carefully-drafted training contract could benefit all parties involved in the training relationship. At a minimum, the training contract can include: a statement of purpose of the training, fees and other payment obligations, what to do in case of an emergency (who to contact, authorization to take certain actions or spend up to a certain amount in veterinary bills on the owner’s behalf, etc.), whether the trainer can solicit or accept offers to sell the horse for a given price, the state whose law applies, and others. Some contracts can include other provisions such as releases of liability (where allowed by law), the location for legal disputes, insurance requirements, a one-month evaluation period by the trainer for an established fee, and many others.
- Insurance. Prompt notification of the insurer is a critical prerequisite to coverage under most equine mortality insurance policies. This reason alone should keep trainers apprised of which horses kept under their care have mortality insurance coverage as well as the insurer’s policy numbers and emergency phone numbers.
- Professionalism. Horse training is a serious service business. The relationship works when both parties take their obligations seriously. For the trainer, this means training the horse in good faith. For the customer, this means paying the trainer on time.
- Handling Disputes. Trainers, particularly before taking serious action, such as selling off a horse, making demands for payment, or pursuing a lawsuit to collect unpaid fees, should consider seeking legal advice. Various state laws, such as debt collection practice laws or stablemen’s lien laws, could directly impact these efforts.Also, trainers rushing to court too hastily against their clients might be surprised when confronted, in response, with a counterclaim (a counter-suit) brought against them. The client’s counterclaim might assert that the trainer somehow violated the training contract and failed to give the horse reasonable care during the training relationship. Regardless of who ultimately wins the case, the cost of legal fees and the amount of disruption to both parties from a lawsuit might be far more than either ever bargained for.As this author has noted in past articles as well as in her book, Equine Law & Horse Sense, many disputes arising in the horse training relationship — especially if both parties appear to have claims against each other — can be suitable for resolution through alternative means of dispute resolution, such as mediation.
- Ending the Relationship. The fact is, not all trainer-client matches will be successful. When the relationship ends, all accounts between the parties should be promptly settled. Also, both parties should think carefully before acting maliciously or “bad-mouthing” the other; the right of free speech in our country is a constitutionally-protected guarantee, but there are legal limits. Even when relationships end on the most bitter terms, where both parties never want to see the other again, they should avoid conditions that could generate claims of slander (spoken defamatory words), libel (written defamatory words), disparagement, illegal interference with the other’s business relationships, or others. These situations could force the parties’ relationship to continue for a long time — in a courtroom.
This article is not intended to constitute legal advice. Where questions arise based on specific circumstances, consult with a knowledgeable attorney.
Julie I. Fershtman, Esq.
About the Author
Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC
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