Could Vices in Horses be the Basis for a Legal Battle?

Could Vices in Horses be the Basis for a Legal Battle?

Equitation scientists must find reliable forensic information (meaning a basis for use in a court of law) to help buyers and sellers clearly define what counts as a vice and what, if any, legal action is appropriate, according to one researcher.

Photo: The Horse Staff

You find your dream horse. Your veterinarian gives him a stamp of approval, and you sign the check. You get him home and then--wham. The problems begin: cribbing, kicking, biting, wind sucking, halter pulling, head tossing, or any number of unpleasant surprises known as vices. And you begin to wonder whether this dream horse isn't actually some sort of nightmare.

Unfortunately, a great number of these vices aren't picked up on during a prepurchase veterinary exam, according to Marianne Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, Specialist KNMvD Equine Internal Medicine, from the Department of Equine Sciences at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. She and an attorney recently reviewed available legal material about equine vices in The Netherlands over the past 20 years, and they found that a wide variety of these vices become the subjects of legal battles. Sloet presented her findings at the 2011 International Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands,

Sloet explained that equine vices can be arbitrarily divided into four categories:

  • Aggressive vices (biting, charging, crowding, fighting, kicking, rearing, striking);
  • Fear-based vices (avoiding and evading behavior, halter pulling);
  • Performance-related vices (barn sourness, running, head-tossing); and
  • Stable vices (cribbing, wind-sucking, pawing, self-mutilation, stall walking, weaving, stall kicking).

However, by far the most common legal complaint was simply that the horse did not perform as well as expected, Sloet said.

"That gets really complicated, because who can really say what is what?" she said. "I'm just a vet; top-class riders and ethologists (animal behaviorists) may know more than I will about performance levels and many other vices and whether this is the horse's fault, or that is the rider's fault, or what's going on. Is it really a fault, or it is normal?"

For this reason equitation scientists must come up with reliable forensic (meaning a basis for use in a court of law) information to help buyers and sellers clearly define what counts as a vice and where the fault might lie. Also, there needs to be a better understanding about when and how fast vices can appear.

"Really nice horses can change very fast, even overnight," Sloet said, giving the example of a horse no longer wanting to load into a trailer after a trailer accident. Horses can also have very different behavior with different handlers and riders, often depending on the person's level of experience and whether a horse and rider 'match.'

Legal decisions about vices will vary significantly from one court to another throughout the world, as little information on the topic is actually published, and there is no common database to provide precedent, references, or definitions. The next step, therefore, is for equitation science to provide such a resource.

"Equine abnormal behavior and vices are a common source of problems and disputes that result in legal procedures," Sloet said. "But a better understanding of these behaviors by sellers, buyers, veterinarians, and judges would probably limit misunderstandings and expensive litigation."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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