The Legal Side of Buying a Horse

You thought you had found the perfect horse but after a few months you find out that he’s not so perfect. Maybe he’s developed a bit of attitude or taken a few bad steps. What do you do? 
 
In a perfect world, you’d take him back and the seller would give you your money back. But it’s not a perfect world.
 
Karen Thompson-Harry is a family and equine lawyer in Erin, Ontario, who was one of the speakers at the 2011 Erin Fall Fair Equine Tent.  She gets most of her equine calls about buying and selling horses.
 
Basically, the issue is that it is difficult to warranty a live animal.  She says she often refers to a previous judgment from 1928, which stated, “As animals are “unknown quantities”, many of which have latent defects, imposing such a warranty would have an extremely depressing effect on trade in animals. Vendors could never be certain that purchasers would not come back seeking damages for defects which were undetected and undetectable at the time of sale. If purchasers desire such a warranty, it is my view they should bargain for an express one.” (Murray v. Reeves Supply Co.)
 
In other words, if you want a warranty, you’ll need to negotiate it yourself. So what do you do? Thompson-Harry recommends both a veterinary pre-purchase exam and a contract.
 
Thompson-Harry has acquired many customers who didn’t want the expense of a pre-purchase exam. Anyone who owns a horse knows how expensive vets can be, she said, but the cost of a pre-purchase exam –which can be roughly $400 and up - is minor compared to the cost of potential issues, even if you’re only paying $1,000 for the horse.
 
The veterinarian performing the pre-purchase exam can’t warranty soundness except on that particular day, and neither can the seller. But, even though the seller can’t say that the horse will stay sound all its life, they are obligated to answer questions honestly. “It is the buyer’s obligation to ask, not the seller’s to tell,” advised Thompson-Harry. Has the horse been unsound? Has is colicked? Has it had x-rays and if so, can we see them? Ask a lot of questions; the seller is not obligated to point out latent defects. 
 
Of course the seller is going to say good things about the horse – “this one’s a real gem” – but she says it’s foolish to buy based on a ‘used car’ selling line. If the buyer has the opportunity, go back several times to see the horse. Take it on trial if possible. 
 
If the buyer wants the horse for a specific purpose, tell it to the seller.  You will be relying on the seller to “tell it straight”. “If things go south, the seller has a problem,” says Thompson-Harry: the seller gave a representation of the horse that became a condition of sale.
 
For example, you’re buying your first horse and it’s important that it’s quiet. The seller assures you that it is, but within three weeks of getting it home, it’s crazy. What will the seller say? “You didn’t tell me that,” or, “You rode the horse. He was fine when he was here!” Without a contract it becomes a he said, she said situation where credibility becomes the issue.  
 
A contract resembles an offer to purchase, just like a real estate offer. Ask the seller to sign to accept the conditions, and put in specifics such as ‘the horse has not colicked’, for example. Also put in the payment terms, such as certified cheque or a series of payments.
 
The bill of sale can be simple but it is very important. It should contain the names and addresses of the buyer and seller, a description of the horse including colour, size, breed, age, sex, and any other identifying characteristics, so you know exactly what you’re bringing home.
 
Thompson-Harry gets most of her calls from customers who have purchased horses under $25,000, cases that will end up in small claims court. She has found that most deals under $5,000 don’t have written contracts. 
 
The important thing is that you’re clear and up front, advised Thompson-Harry. 
 
©2011 K. Dallimore. All Rights Reserved.
If you're interested in re-printing this article please contact me. It has appeared in Country Routes, the Ontario Farmer and the Western Horse Review.
 

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