It's an all-too-common issue these days: you take good care of your horses, providing food, water, shelter, attention, veterinary care, a farrier, the works, but your neighbor does not. What do you do? An old adage (are there any new adages?) says that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. That sounds like an unequivocal call to action, and some individuals and organizations concerned with animal welfare feel that doing anything is better than doing nothing.
The danger, however, is creating new problems while trying to solve existing ones. Rescue groups that take in more horses than they can manage sometimes have to be rescued themselves, and good-hearted and well-intentioned individuals create more problems than solutions when they overextend themselves by taking in too many horses that need help.
Is your neighbor neglecting his or her horses out of ignorance, or intentionally abusing them? If it's the former, and if your neighbor is amenable, some friendly advice about basic horse care might solve the problem. "Knowledge is power," according to Sir Francis Bacon. Keep in mind, though, that no one has an obligation to take your advice, no matter how good it might be, or even to allow you on private property to give that advice. There are myriad civil and criminal legal issues associated with horse rescue, including trespass, conversion or theft of personal property, and even libel or slander. Simply being a good Samaritan likely will fail as a defense to a lawsuit or criminal charge.
If your neighbor is intentionally abusing animals, the proper authorities should be notified immediately. No matter how strong or weak the animal welfare laws are in your state, there are few situations in which taking the law into your own hands is a good idea.
But what about a neighbor who wants to take care of the horses but has fallen on hard times, another victim of a bad economy? Should you take in some of the horses and care for them? While this might be the right thing to do, you should consider the legal ramifications.
First, there should be a written contract that includes, among other things: the business relationship between you and the neighbor (are you partners, for example); which horses you'll be responsible for; how long the animals will be in your care; the standard of care you will provide; whether the owner will provide any feed, veterinary and farrier care, or labor to supplement your care of the animals; who has authority to call a veterinarian and who will be responsible for unexpected and extraordinary expenses such as colic surgery; whether you can expect to be reimbursed by the owner for your expenses at some later date (if so, the date should be specific); and whether you will share in any profits realized if horses in your care are sold.
If there are broodmares involved, the contract should give you decision-making authority over whether animals in your care will be bred. This can be a particularly touchy subject, especially if the owner wants to keep breeding in hopes that the horses will someday be sold for enough money to show a profit. Keep in mind that continuing to produce any product that cannot be sold profitably seldom makes good economic sense. Overproduction and diminished demand are serious problems in the horse industry today, and you do not want to become an enabler who adds to the overpopuation problem.
Finally, remember the law of bailments. This has nothing to do with getting your neighbor out of jail by posting bail, and everything to do with your responsibility for taking care of horses belonging to someone else. If one person turns over personal property (including horses) to another person for safekeeping—-the exact scenario envisioned here—-the person who takes possession of the property has a legal obligation to return the property to the owner undamaged. If one of your neighbor's horses is injured while in your care, you must prove that you were not negligent to avoid legal liability. That can be a difficult burden for the defendant in a lawsuit. Anyone who assumes responsibility for horses owned by someone else should have care, custody and control insurance for their own protection.
If all this seems like too much complication for performing a good deed, remember another old adage: "No good deed goes unpunished."