University of Vermont AAHS

How Ever-changing Law Affects the Riding Instructor

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Summer 2000 Caution:Horses, Volume 5, No. 2]


Sometimes the courts make good law. Sometimes the courts make not-so-good law. Sometimes the courts make bad law. How does this happen and what effect does it have on the horse professional?

What comes out of the courtrooms of America depends entirely on what goes in and sometimes we really do mean garbage in/garbage out.

Whoever decides the outcome of any case, either a judge or a jury, must decide based on what he or she has seen or heard in the courtroom during the actual trial. No preconceived ideas or prejudices should enter into the deliberations. So what comes into the courtroom?

First, there are the people involved and their stories. Then there are other witnesses who saw or have some knowledge of the event or circumstances in question. In many instances there will be expert testimony to establish what is the standard for behavior in the horse industry in a given set of circumstances. An expert on one side usually means an expert on the other to rebut the testimony of the first.

The judge or the jury, whoever is deciding the case, has to determine who is telling the truth and which expert is the most credible, and there is the problem. Both experts may be good. Only one may be good. Or both may be totally nuts. But someone has to decide and if there are no good choices the decision will not be good.

That is what happens in the trial court. What becomes law as we know it happens when a case is appealed and a written opinion is issued by the appellate court. There will be no written opinion in the vast majority of cases unless the case is appealed.

When the case is appealed, only certain things are being examined but the case as a whole stands to make law. If the witnesses were not good examples of the industry, if the experts were not truly experts in practice in their area of testimony, or if the lawyers tried the case without any expert testimony there is a good chance that the case will produce law that will be difficult for the horse professional to live with. The other unfortunate alternative is that the lawyers themselves left much to be desired but the industry must live with their mistakes.

There is good news, however. Because our system of law is derived from English Common Law it is ever-changing and it may be possible to distinguish one’s own situation from any given case. Then one can say the old law is wrong or if right it doesn’t apply in the present case.

What this means for the horse professional is that it is not enough to know what he or she is doing; it is also essential to be able to explain what is being done. Saying that this is the way every one does it is not enough. It is also inadequate to say the one has done something a particular way for years without an accident and expect that to be a justification. One should not wait for an accident to provide notice of a problem. Anytime there is an unpredictable event such as a loose horse, a fall, a horse on a roadway, or any near miss, it should alert the horse professional that the situation needs to be particularly examined for hidden risks.

It is absolutely essential that the horse professional be able to defend with accurate details every aspect of what is being done with student or horse in training. In practice this means that one needs to examine all that one does and make sure that there is a logical explanation for why it is being done. If there is not one then maybe the methodology needs to be reevaluated.

Anytime the horse professional starts taking safety for granted or assumes that there will be no accident because there has never been an accident, look for trouble. Anytime that little voice inside says, "Uh-oh, I hope...,"stop immediately and make whatever changes are necessary to make the little voice be quiet.

Remember: The tort lawyers have no job unless someone has an accident.

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