Imagine the scenario: When collecting your horses from the pasture for breakfast one morning, an extra (and unfamiliar) horse follows your herd to the gate. Or one of your boarders—maybe one who's repeatedly late on paying bills—stops turning up to the barn, leaving her horse behind. Regardless of how it happens, you're now faced with an abandoned horse on your property. What should you do? Here are a few things to know about handling abandoned horses.
Who's Responsible for Abandoned Horses?
Recently, a Kentucky farm owner defended himself against multiple animal cruelty charges by telling the court that several horses were abandoned by their owners on his property. But such claims might not be enough to save him from prosecution, said attorney Rachel Kosmal McCart, nor does it guarantee the farmer's ownership of the animals.
McCart, the founder and principal attorney of Equine Legal Solutions PC, an equine law firm based near Portland, Ore., said horse abandonment is a frequent occurrence, especially during hard economic times. But a horse left on someone's farm—like the one in our first example—isn't automatically the land owner's property.
“In situations where the property owner wakes up one morning, finds an extra horse, and truly has no idea where the horse came from, the property owner still doesn’t own the horse,” McCart said. “It’s not 'finders keepers.' ”
But at the same time, the property owner could be liable for the horse's care, even if the animal simply wandered onto the property, said Morgan Silver, executive director of the Horse Protection Association of Florida.
“It varies from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but if the horse is on someone's property, that person is responsible for the horse (because) you are responsible for what happens on your property,” Silver said. “And who else is going to care for the horse? The property owner is the only person with access to the horse to provide care.”
More frequently, horses are abandoned in manners similar to our second example.
"(Horse abandonment) is usually a euphemism for a situation where the property owner knows who owns the horse versus an actual case of an animal being dumped off by an unknown person,” McCart said. “In such cases (in some states, including California, Oregon, Washington, and New York) the horse is not actually considered 'abandoned.' Instead it is considered a civil dispute between the property owner and the horse owner.”
Silver said an animal can be considered abandoned when an owner simply ceases to show up to care for the horse or stops paying for services at the horse's boarding facility. In that case, Silver said, the facility owner is responsible for the animal's care.
“If the owner of the property lives there and knows the animal has been declining and did nothing to get help for the animal, then they are liable,” Silver said.
What Should I Do if I have an Abandoned Horse on My Land?
McCart recommends owners call their local sheriff's office as soon as they find that a horse has been abandoned on their property—regardless of how or why the animal ended up there.
“In many rural areas, the sheriff has a livestock officer whose job it is to deal with livestock-related crimes, including dumping unwanted livestock,” McCart said. “If the sheriff is not equipped to deal with the situation directly, they should be able to give guidance on local resources, which differ greatly depending on location.”
Remember: Laws vary by state and jurisdiction, so it's advisable to consult an attorney or research the regulations in your area.