Attention directed toward the plight of abandoned horses has centered on those animals left without food and water and veterinary care in fields or stalls, or those horses simply turned loose by their owners to fend for themselves. These unfortunate horses are the most visible representatives of a burgeoning problem and they deserve all the help we can muster.

Largely ignored are another group of horses, the ones left behind at a boarding farm by economically distressed owners who no longer can pay for their animals’ care. These horses might not be in straits as dire as some other abandoned horses; they are being cared for, albeit not by their owners who should be financially responsible for their upkeep. Someone has to pay for the upkeep of these abandoned horses, though. The burden, at least initially, falls on the owner of the boarding farm.

Preventing a problem always is preferable to dealing with one, and many board bill issues can be resolved if the farm owner and the horse owner simply communicate with each other. Talking before a delinquent board bill languishes for months is best. Being proactive will not always work, but it cannot hurt.

But what are the options available to a boarding farm owner with a client who truly has vanished, along with the checkbook?

The first option that comes to mind is simply selling the horse and using the proceeds from the sale to pay the board bill and other expenses. It also is the worst option. Selling someone else’s horse without the legal authority to do so leaves the farm owner vulnerable to a lawsuit for conversion (the civil version of theft) if the horse owner later reappears, or possibly being charged with a crime. The horse can legally be sold to pay the bill, but only after the farm owner jumps through a number of procedural hoops.

If there is a written boarding contract—and there always should be—the farm owner may have a security interest in the horse. In its simplest terms, a security interest is a contractual agreement between the farm owner and the horse owner. It grants the farm owner legal authority to sell the horse to cover a past-due board bill. Selling a horse pursuant to a contractual security interest is the fastest and simplest way to deal with a delinquent bill because courts do not have to be involved. A boarding contract, including a security interest clause, should be drafted by an attorney, who also can explain the filing requirements the farm owner must satisfy. The filing process is called "perfecting" the interest.

Even without a written contract, a farm owner has other options to deal with a vanishing horse owner. The first is reliance on a statutory agister’s lien. An agister’s lien is a state law that gives a farm owner an interest in the boarded horse, and sets out the legal steps that must be taken to legally sell the horse. The specifics of agister’s liens, including requirements for notice of the proposed sale and a judicial hearing for the horse owner, vary from state to state. Every state has an agister’s lien law, and a written boarding contract is not required.

Finally, a farm owner can file a civil lawsuit against the horse owner seeking the past-due board.

The horse owner will remain liable for any amount not covered by proceeds from the sale of the horse. If the sale produces more than the amount owed, plus reasonable expenses, the balance must be turned over to the horse owner. Compensation for the farm owner’s aggravation, even if justified under the circumstances, is not a valid expense.