It’s every horse owner’s nightmare: You have a dead broke horse that you allow a friend to ride. The friend manages to fall off and is injured. Lawyers and insurance companies get involved. You and your now former friend wind up on opposite sides of a personal injury lawsuit.
What are the responsibilities of a horse owner in a situation like this one, when a friend utters the fateful words "can I ride your horse?"
The Court of Appeals of Louisiana determined that horse owners Lawrence and Annette Rivett were not responsible for injuries suffered by David Everett when he fell off one of the Rivett’s horses, a retired barrel racer named Breeze. One day in March 2006 Everett asked to ride Breeze. There was some question about Everett’s prior experience as a rider, but he apparently indicated that he knew how to stop and turn a horse, and that he knew the basics. Ms. Rivett filled in some of the gaps in Everett’s minimal knowledge, suggested that he should not hit Breeze or make whistling or clucking sounds because those things would make the horse run, and sent the pair off for a ride.
This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, and it was.
A few minutes into the ride Everett "nudged her (Breeze) a little bit, she took off trotting, and once she hit the open field, she just took off." Everett managed to slow Breeze down and get her to turn, the only two things he seemed to know how to do according to testimony at trial, but she started running again, this time directly at a telephone pole. In a burst of self-preservation Breeze veered sharply away from the pole. Everett came off. He sued to recover for the injuries he suffered in the fall, but he lost at trial. The Louisiana appellate court agreed.
At trial Everett was asked why, when Breeze slowed down the first time, he did not do the sensible thing—simply stop the mare and get off.
"I honestly don’t know," Everett testified. "It didn’t cross my mind at the time."
Everyone has a legal duty to act in a reasonable manner, and the ultimate question for the Court was whether the Rivetts’ decision to allow Everett to ride Breeze had been a reasonably prudent one. To answer that question the Court of Appeals first had to decide whether Breeze was a "gentle" horse.
There was a wealth of testimony in the trial record indicating that Breeze was nothing but a gentle riding horse, despite her background as a competitive barrel racer. Breeze had been ridden by a young girl during her barrel racing days and she had been ridden by various people without any problems during the year the Rivetts owned her. The Rivetts testified that they had encountered no difficulties with the mare, and that they knew of no behavioral issues with Breeze’s former owners.
An expert in equine behavior who testified during the trial found no physical reasons for Breeze to be uncontrollable. Even when Breeze was placed in uncomfortable situations, the expert said, the mare did not try and buck off her rider or run away. The expert also testified that retired Thoroughbreds and retired barrel racers had been used successfully in therapeutic riding programs.
The bottom line, the Court said, was that "nothing (in the trial record) that would indicate Breeze was anything but a gentle animal without any of those quirks of animal nature that would have rendered her dangerous or unsafe in any degree whatsoever." Everett, it seems, simply fell off.
The Rivetts were lucky to avoid liability, but the decision should be a wake-up call for everyone who wants to share a horse with a friend. Accidents can happen, even with a "gentle" horse like Breeze. And accidents can be expensive.