University of Vermont AAHS

LITIGATION CORNER: The No Good, No Duty Defense
By Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Spring 2002 Caution:Horses]

At a Super Bowl party at a big ranch, friends of the owners began to gather for the festivities.  Most of the adults and all but one of the children had been to the ranch before.  The one child who was new to the group had come as the guest of another guest to accompany his young son.

The owners of the ranch brought a horse trailer full of saddled horses from a small pasture in another part of the ranch over a mile away, across a highway.  It was a very large ranch.  The horses were unloaded and tied to the trailer.  Kids were milling around and the owner told the kids to wait until he returned and he went to the camp house to fix the meat for the barbecue.  The horses, the kids, and the trailer were visible to the owner at all times.

The kids all wanted to ride and the new child was even climbing on the trailer where the horses were tied.  One of the guests who had been at the ranch parties before decided to take the kids for a ride and was miffed that no one offered to help him.  He had a small child on the saddle in front of him and two of the other children were mounted double.  It is fairly clear that no stirrups were adjusted and no helmets were offered although one of the kids had brought a helmet..  The saddles were all adult saddles but all had holes punched so that the stirrups could be shortened had an effort been made to do so.  The stirrups were not shortened and no one remembered any instructions because they “had all ridden these horses before.”  The group departed for a trail ride.

For an undetermined reason, one horse in the back picked up speed and spooked the others.  When the dust settled three kids had fallen and one, went to the hospital.  The pair riding double had fallen and the new boy who had never been on a horse before had fallen.  The adult was glad he had been able to control his horse as he was having trouble doing that while holding the child in front of him.  He reported that his hands were rubbed raw.

An argument was made that the ranch had no duty to do any more for the riders whether children or adults because they were amateurs and as such could not be held to any standard such as would be a professional.

That is, of course, absurd.  They need not be professionals and whether the amateur, backyard horseman, casual rancher, or show rider has little or lots of experience he or she must behave as a reasonable person would behave under similar circumstances.  Common sense tells us that we cannot supply our guests with all kinds of sporting equipment without first informing ourselves as to its safe operation.

We cannot, for example, park five or six four wheelers with keys in them but no helmets or instructions and just leave them for the enjoyment of our guests and their kids.  If we do so it is at our peril.  The same goes for jet skis and other things.  A really interesting difference is that when we let go of the handle bar of the four-wheeler or jet ski they both will stop.  This is not so with a horse.

There is a duty of inform oneself as to the safe operation of such equipment.  There is a duty to instruct.  There is a duty to make sure the instructions are understood and can be followed.  And there is a duty to do this in the safest possible place.  There are many places that are simply inappropriate for an inexperienced person to be on a horse.  The best rule of thumb is to thoroughly examine to what extent one is leaving the safety of the people up to the horses and then decide if this is something that you really want to do.

Even though your friends may not sue you, their insurance companies may not feel such affection.  What if after the injury and partial recovery the victim’s insurance company says, “We have done all we are going to do.  The rest is cosmetic and your policy does not cover that.  You have to look to another source.”

Another scenario is that the insurance company sends an investigator out, a common occurrence with a serious injury, and the investigator determines that there is negligence on the part of the horse-owner or landowner.  The victim than has no choice because the insurance company will not pay if they think another party, with another policy, is at fault.

It is always best to assume a duty to anyone to whom you offer a ride on your horse or horses.  In the long run it is better, cheaper and a nicer way to treat your friends to assume you have a responsibility for their safety. 

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