Paperwork for When You're Not There

Horse paperwork--it's not what you're thinking. This is not about your horse standing in front of a schematic drawing making a checklist of plans on how to break into the grain room in the middle of the night. This is about those issues that require communication between caretakers of your horse(s) in order to avoid mayhem. Having been in this business as long as I have, I've seen some amazing (and avoidable) problems develop for lack of appropriate paperwork, or rather communication. Let's look at several of these situations so you can be prepared for any future eventualities.

Out of Town, Out of Contact

One tenet of life that often arises is "things happen when least expected." The first scenario that comes to mind involves a horse that hasn't had a sneeze in years, and without a backward glance, you decide to take a long-anticipated trip to a faraway place. As soon as you vanish out of home range, your horse manages to injure himself or get sick. He's probably not doing this for the attention, but it will definitely get everyone's attention.

Now someone else is in charge, someone who has to make decisions for you, which is not always the most desirable position to be in. There are immediate decisions that must be made about how and to what degree the horse receives care. At times, vital decisions must be achieved as quickly as possible, such as, "Should the horse undergo emergency surgery, or would it be more humane to euthanatize the horse?"

To avoid having a horse linger in pain, leave specific instructions with the caregiver when you are away. It is best to leave instructions with a responsible party at all times in case you are not easily contacted even if you're in town. Each horse you own should have its own set of instructions so your wishes will be carried out to the best of everyone's abilities.

Green Tree Equine Facility, an 80-horse boarding facility in Longmont, Colo., is owned and operated by Randy and Debbie Eubanks. They have managed and boarded horses for three decades, and they have developed a practical approach for accepting new horses on the property.

Eubanks advises, "Each horse must come with a detailed list of people to contact in the event of an emergency, including contact information for a horse's regular veterinarian, for the person in charge of making decisions on behalf of the horse, and who to contact to haul the horse to the nearest treatment hospital if necessary."

An owner's detailed written instructions should be submitted to your veterinarian of preference and attached to your horse's stall in the barn or filed in the barn office. Your regular veterinarian is not always the one to respond to an emergency, so don't count on having only a verbal conversation with a single individual to suffice as "instructions." A paper log distinctly conveys your wishes and financial authorization so there are no misunderstandings.

Itemize the Instructions

The following concerns should be addressed in detail in the paperwork created for each horse:

  1. Provide phone number(s) where you can be reached, if possible, and include contact information for someone authorized to act on your behalf if you cannot be reached.
  2. List veterinarian(s) to call, and if there are more than one, list in order of preference. It is smart to provide a couple of names in case your preferred veterinarian is not available at a moment of crisis.
  3. Detail specific procedures that you would authorize. Stipulate a maximum dollar amount that you are willing to pay, and with these instructions, a veterinarian should provide care within those limitations. Generally, most critical issues can be dealt with on an immediate basis for less than $2,000, however a procedure like colic surgery could run in the neighborhood of $3,000-$6,000, depending on the complexity of the situation.
  4. State whether you would authorize colic surgery, orthopedic surgery, or any surgery. If so, up to what dollar amount will you authorize? Would you be willing to pursue surgery if the horse would only be suitable as a retired pasture horse? Would you authorize intensive care (such as IV fluids, monitoring, analgesics, etc.) for colic or any medical condition if this gives your horse a chance to recover without surgical intervention?
  5. There are questions to ask yourself and to delineate clearly:
    Would you authorize euthanasia were that the only humane option? Would you elect euthanasia if medical expenses were to exceed a specified amount? Specify the maximum amount you are willing to spend on medical treatment. State these wishes in writing so there is absolutely no possibility of a misunderstanding. If a horse needs to be euthanatized, there must be an agent or signed document to communicate to the veterinarian what your express wishes would be.
  6. What arrangements have you made for horse transport to a hospital or surgical facility, should that become necessary? Who should be called to assist in transport? This agent (relative or friend) should be notified in advance and agree to help your horse if necessary before you list his name. An alternative solution would be to leave the key to your truck and horse trailer with a responsible person who is willing to drive your rig and haul your horse. Arrange for more than one person who would be willing to transport your horse in case one selected person is not available at the time of need.
  7. Leave a few choices as to who will be making decisions about your horse in your absence. Do NOT place this burden of decision on your veterinarian's shoulders. Unless the veterinarian is a close family friend or relative, this is an inappropriate position in which to place a veterinary professional.
  8. Although your veterinarian might recommend certain treatment or euthanasia, any final decision and say-so to proceed should not be left up to the veterinarian, unless it's a last resort for humane purposes. Select a third party as agent--a relative, a reliable close friend, or at the very least, a knowledgeable horse owner. Secure his permission to assume this responsibility.
  9. Leave a credit card or the number, three-digit security code, expiration date, and the zip code of your billing address with the caretaker in your absence. Most veterinarians and veterinary hospitals expect to be paid at time of service; many require a deposit upon walking in the door before services are rendered. Update your credit card information frequently so there is always an active card for use.
  10. Leave contact information for your horse's insurance company, as the policy requires notification prior to any surgical procedure and immediately following any medical mishap or accident. Include the horse's policy number with this paperwork. Ensure that the caretaker is aware of the necessity of informing the insurance company and understands how to do this.
  11. There have been instances when an insurance company has not been notified in advance of procedures, and coverage for the claim has been denied. (See below for more on insurance.)

Taking these precautions eliminates hand-wringing and soul-searching by friends and family in your absence. Having your wishes in writing enables a veterinarian to do his or her job in a timely fashion. And most importantly, your horse is freed from unnecessary pain and suffering because you have made provisions for immediate care.

Insurance Particulars

It is always smart to read every line of an insurance policy document so you are clear on your contractual arrangements with the company. If your horse is insured for mortality or major medical, the terms of most policies require immediate notification with any change in health of your horse.

John Hart, president of American Equine Insurance Group (AEIG), comments, "There have been misconceptions that notification by an owner might elicit a premium increase at renewal, but this is not true. Good communications between a horse owner and the insurance company can avoid many problems."

One big problem AEIG notes is that of late notification. Let's say an owner thinks a horse has a stone bruise, she doesn't notify the insurance company about it, and six months later the horse turns out to have a chronic lameness issue requiring ongoing medical treatment. By now a long period of time has elapsed and coverage might be denied.

The AIEG stresses that if an owner is late in sharing information so that the insurance company has not had a chance to review the case, then the company might be "prejudiced." The insurance company needs time to bring in consulting veterinarians as necessary. This is especially important in a case recommending euthanasia.

Another little-known piece of advice from AEIG involves elective procedures. The AEIG recommends that even if an owner does not expect insurance to cover an elective surgical or medical procedure, he should notify the company prior to the procedure in case a horse should experience secondary complications or die from anesthesia.

The AEIG does stress that their requirement for immediate notification is intended to protect a horse owner's rights. In some cases, there are strict penalties for not notifying in advance of procedures.

Technically, for example, if an owner does not give notification prior to a castration, then the insurance policy would terminate at midnight of the day preceding the surgery so the horse would be uninsured should something go wrong.

To reinstate insurance, the company then has the right to adjust the value of the horse accordingly.

In addition, communication with the insurance company is helpful to understand payment obligations. Normally, the insurance company will pay for reasonable and customary "standard" procedures that are considered routine, non-maintenance medical therapies.

However, if your veterinarian suggests a "new" procedure that at this point might be an experimental treatment, such as IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein) joint therapy, it might not be covered by your policy.

Discuss the any expected procedures with your claim adjuster before taking your horse to the appointment. Then you will have a better idea as to what your insurance covers, what procedures and treatments outside of normal veterinary care require additional review, and in those cases, what information you need to send to the company.

Leased or Borrowed Horse

In many cases, multiple persons retain care of a horse, either through a lease arrangement or through a temporary loan.

These situations are not to be taken casually. Murphy's Law sometimes prevails: If anything can go wrong, it will.

To avoid confusion, misunderstanding, finger-pointing, and future legal entanglement, put the entire agreement in writing. Consider the following steps:

  1. Have a knowledgeable veterinarian perform a "prepurchase" exam even though the horse is not technically for sale. This establishes a baseline of health and soundness for that animal at that moment when you assume responsibility for the horse.

    Be aware that not all problems are identifiable with such an exam, as some more insidious health and soundness issues can be simmering, and the horse might develop clinical signs sometime in the future that could require in-depth diagnostic procedures beyond the scope of a physical exam. But in general, overt and significant problems that are evident that day are usually identified and defined during a thorough physical exam.
  2. Put everything in writing to define what preventive management and medical care practices are the bare minimum, i.e., frequency and type of immunizations, deworming, farrier care, supplements, and dietary needs.
    • Detail who is responsible for medical care, i.e., who is going to pay medical bills? This should cover preventive medicine, acute injury situations, and performance issues such as lameness.
    • Who has the decision-making power over the welfare of the horse? Is it the owner, the leaser, or both? Who has the ultimate decision-making power about the degree and cost of medical care rendered to the horse? How much input does the leaser have on these matters, and how much does the owner have?
    • What is the value of the horse should he lose athletic soundness due to injury or, should the unthinkable happen, the horse dies or must be destroyed? Who is responsible for this dollar value?
    • What constitutes appropriate medical care and stabling care as agreed to by both parties?
    • Include all the other questions/answers in the "itemized instructions" for caregivers detailed above.
  3. Consider, as a leaser, taking out a mortality insurance policy on the horse while it is in your care.

If you feel it is advantageous to have an attorney involved in drafting up your agreement, or at the very least to have the agreement notarized, then make arrangements to do so in advance of taking or giving possession of the horse.

Other Paperwork

It is also wise to include other items of note with a horse's caretaker, such as these specific concerns:


  • Known allergies to certain medications or foods. Mark these in red, bold writing, and post the note adjacent to the horse's living place where the warning is immediately visible to a horse handler or veterinarian. Also, verbally advise the barn manager of any concerns.
  • Specific dietary rules or restrictions.
  • Blanketing recommendations and preferences.
  • Turnout recommendations or restrictions.
  • Bedding needs, if stalled.
  • Description of behavioral quirks in stall, paddock, and turnout.
  • Known position and compatibility of each horse within the herd's dynamics.

Travel Documents

While on the road or away from the barn, there are certain papers that should accompany your horse. If you travel out of state, most notably you'll need proof of a negative Coggins test performed within the past six or 12 months, depending on the state requirements, and you'll need a current health certificate dated within 10 to 30 days. The exact timing depends on state requirements.

If you travel without these documents, you could find yourself turned back at a state's port of entry or sent to the nearest veterinary clinic to obtain the necessary paperwork. This can mean considerable delay and much increased expense.

If you live out West, many of these states also require a brand inspection card proving ownership. A brand inspector will not hesitate to pull you over, impound your horse, and assess fines if you do not have these required documents. If you are transporting someone else's horse, carry written (even notarized) permission from the owner.

A horse need not be branded to have a brand inspection; you prove ownership with registration papers, along with a physical inspection to match the horse to the registration papers.

Southeastern states are now offering an interstate passport ID card for travel to events within Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Traveling from the United States to Canada requires a special veterinary health certificate that is stamped at the border by a USDA agent.

If you are planning to compete your horse internationally, you'll need to obtain a F�d�ration Equestre Internationale equine passport, available through the United States Equestrian Federation ( You'll want to allow at least four to six weeks for application processing.

When shipping your horse overseas, it's best to check with the shipper about the specific document you'll need to confirm the horse's health and immunization record. Also, remember to contact your insurance agent to advise that your horse will be out of the country.

In the event of a natural disaster--such as a hurricane, flood, or fire--in which a horse is evacuated or lost, a microchip serves as an excellent means of identification to reunite you with your horse.

Typically, Coggins test papers that include proof of the microchip number and your personal identification will serve as a document to claim a microchipped horse registered to you.

Photos are also helpful to substantiate ownership claims. Be sure to store important paperwork in a safe and accessible place, and make copies to store elsewhere or with a friend or relative. Be sure to update your contact information in the microchip manufacturer's database whenever there are any changes.

Take-Home Message

If you do your homework to cover all bases in your horse's paperwork file, you might never need this information. This is another ironic tenet of life: If you are prepared, then nothing ever happens. As any horse owner who has encountered an emergency can attest, it is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared for an unforeseen event.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her recent book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care (available at or by calling 800/582-5604). She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners