Equine Activity Liability Laws are a legislative mandate that riding or other horse activities are dangerous and that participants in the activities assume the risk of being injured—if the injury results from an "inherent risk." Sounds good, but what, exactly, are inherent risks of an equine activity?

Some are obvious. Being kicked or being bitten or falling off, for example, are risks that cannot be separated from riding or working around horses, and that is what "inherent risk" really means. Other risks, such as negligence by the activity sponsor or faulty tack, clearly do not fit into the inherent risk category.

Then there’s everything in between. Horses have a propensity to shy away from things that frighten them, which sounds like an inherent risk, but what if the horse bolts due to a situation that could have been prevented and the rider is injured? Is it an inherent risk of riding, or negligence by the sponsor?

The Texas Supreme Court considered that question recently in Loftin v. Lee. The decision is not legal precedent outside the Lone Star State, but the result is useful guidance about the scope of inherent risk.

Lee decided to go riding with Loftin, a friend who owned and trained horses. Lee had been a horse breeder for years, but had limited experience as a rider. Loftin put Lee on "Smash," a 12-year-old gelding the owner bought as a barrel racer for her daughter. Despite Smash’s somewhat ominous name, Lee thought the horse "seemed calm, gentle, and not at all dangerous." The ride went well until Loftin led them through a boggy, wooded area. Both riders saw the mud, but neither tried to avoid it.

Already bothered by the mud, Smash bolted when a vine hanging from a tree bumped his flank. Lee came off and suffered a fractured vertebra. Lee filed a personal injury lawsuit and the case began a long and torturous journey through the Texas courts.

The trial court dismissed Lee’s lawsuit, reasoning that the state’s Equine Activity Liability Law barred claims for injury resulting from inherent risks. Lee appealed the dismissal; the Court of Appeals reversed and sent the case back for trial. Loftin appealed at that point; the Texas Supreme Court reversed the lower appellate court, deciding that the trial court’s application of the Equine Activity Liability Law had been correct in the first place. The final ruling came more than five years after the accident.

Lee argued that an inherent risk should be limited to those risks arising from "innate animal behavior." The Court explained that while Lee acknowledged that a horse might "become skittish in mud or when its flank is touched, and that such behavior is an inherent risk of riding," she argued that her injuries resulted only because she was put in a situation "where those propensities could cause harm." It was Loftin’s negligence, Lee argued, not Smash’s natural propensities, which caused the injury.

The Court disagreed.

"The Act simply cannot be fairly read to limit inherent risks to those which are unavoidably associated with equine behavior," the Court said. "Construed so narrowly, the Act would accomplish nothing." Although Loftin and Lee possibly could have avoided riding on the particular trail where the injury occurred, the Court explained that the "inherent risk in trail riding is that a horse will be spooked by natural conditions, if not mud and vines, then birds or shadows."

Lee also claimed that Loftin did not spend enough time evaluating her riding ability before putting her on Smash. Loftin said that she already knew enough about her friend’s riding skills and that the law does not require an "interrogation" before a rider is assigned a horse. The Court agreed that a "formal, searching inquiry" into a rider’s ability is not required and noted that Lee did not claim that more thorough questioning would have prevented the accident.

Was the Texas court correct that choosing a potentially dangerous path for a trail ride by the leader is an inherent risk?