Equine law - not just horsing around

14 October 2019

Equine law as a practice area has become increasingly prominent, with a growing number of legal issues requiring firms to skill-up; but is there a clear definition of what 'equine law' is?

We all understand what 'equine' means; equine law must be law that relates to horses. However, this does not give us an explanation of what it practically involves, particularly in the context of sports law (which often poses its own existential questions).

Equine law deals with a wide range of legal areas from personal injury to commercial disputes. It encompasses tort and contract as much as property or insurance law. This article focuses on a just a selection of those areas in which we have seen growth - for illustrative purposes.

To assist, it is useful to understand the reasons for its recent increase in emphasis, and what you might expect to see in an equine law practice.

Rise in popularity…

Horse-riding is one of the most popular sports in the UK, with the number of horses in our fields rising yearly. According to an article published in the Law Society Gazette in 2008, around £4bn a year is spent on horses in Britain. In 1999, there were 1.2 million horses in the UK. However, the popularity of the sport has meant that this number has increased, with the British Equine Trade Association (BETA) confirming in 2005/6 that just over four million people are taking to the saddle every year. The survey is now somewhat dated, but the 2012 London Olympics helped increase the popularity of the sport, and seven years on this trend does not appear to have changed. According to the British Horse Society, there has been a steady increase in horse riding since 2014 and regular riders are now estimated to have reached 1.8 million, having risen from 1.3 million in 2014. With the increase in participation in equestrian sports, there is an ever increasing need for legal advisers who are familiar with the environment in which riders and horse owners operate in.

… and the rise in regulation

Rules and regulations which govern equine activities are well developed and the increase in participation has seen an increase in matters such as livery, insurance, doping, stable management, integrity issues, and health and safety.

One example of such an issue which commonly occurs would be where a horse is sold through an agent. If the agent makes untrue statements to the buyer, the seller will be liable for those statements and a claim can be brought against the seller of the horse. With a considerable amount of money invested in eventing and racing, misrepresentation has become a more common cause of action for many buyers alleging that sellers and their agents have sold unfit horses.

A growing area of equine law concerns regulatory cases brought under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In 2017 the RSPCA reported at least 17,000 cases of animal cruelty of which at least 4,923 related to abuse against horses in Yorkshire alone. Cases often deal with situations where horses have been mistreated, possibly the result of individual owners or riding schools acquiring horses without necessarily having the facilities or the staff to care for them.

Personal injury litigation

Another increasing area of equine work concerns personal injury claims against schools and other riding venues, often involving injuries occurring during competitions. Claimants in such cases are aided by the strict liability provisions in the Animals Act 1971 which make a horse owner responsible for any injury or damage caused by their horse, even where the owner has not been negligent. The relevant section is Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971 which reads as follows:

Where any damage is caused by an animal which does not belong to a dangerous species, a keeper of the animal is liable for the damage, ... if (b) the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to the characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances and (c) those characteristics were known to the keeper or were at any time known to a person who at that time had charge of the animal as at that keeper's servant...

In 2003, the House of Lords established in the case of Mirvahedy v Henley [2003] 2 A.C. 491 that the keeper of an animal could be strictly liable for damage that resulted from behaviour which was in no way abnormal for an animal of that species, in particular circumstances. The case involved the defendant's horses escaping from the field, resulting in an accident with the claimant's car. At the time it was anticipated that the decision would cause an increase in claims under the Animals Act. Certainly the effect of the decision was to raise awareness about the ability to claim for horse-related injury or damage.

However, whilst Mirvahedy prompted further claims, subsequent case law has emphasised the limits of liability under the Act. Two notable examples are Goldsmith v Patchcott [2012] EWCA Civ 183 and Freeman v Higher Park Farm [208] EWCA Civ 1185. In Goldsmith, the claimant was thrown off a horse whilst she was testing it. She was told by the seller that the horse required an experienced rider. The court decided that by riding it anyway, the claimant had accepted the risks involved. The case of Freeman presented similar facts. The claimant hired a horse for a hack. She was an experienced rider and fell off when the horse bucked twice before cantering. The court agreed that bucking is a common behaviour for horses that are startled and the claimant knew what risks she was running. The Act contains a statutory defence at section 5(2) preventing liability where damage is suffered by someone who voluntarily accepted the risk.

The Mirvahedy ruling was also considered in the decision in Clark v Bowlt [2006] EWCA Civ 978 where the claimant had fallen from a horse hired to her by the defendant. At first instance, it was found that although neither party was negligent, the defendant was strictly liable under the Animals Act 1971. The Court of Appeal, however, disagreed with the ruling and considered the scope of the section 2 duty had been misapplied. The damage in this case was likely to be severe because of the weight of the horse. The judge had failed to consider whether the horse's weight was an unusual characteristic in an animal of that species. Had he done so, he would have concluded it was not, and section 2(2)(b) of the Act would not have been satisfied. As one of the Appeal Court judges put it "section 2(2) is not intended to render the keepers of domesticated animals routinely liable for damage which results from characteristics common to the species. It requires something particular, and there was nothing of the specified kind to render the keeper liable here".

Whilst these cases demonstrate that the Animals Act 1971 is not necessarily a straightforward route to liability, they are illustrative of a trend towards litigation. The increasing popularity of the sport together with an increased appetite for commercial litigation, regulatory action and nuances of the strict liability regime applicable to animal-related injuries, seems likely to lead to opportunities for equine law specialists. The increase in sports betting on horses and doping will also potentially cause an increase in sport-related equine matters.

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