In the past year and a half, my husband and I have had to deal with 5 horses that were left at our boarding facility by people who were unable to pay their board, and unable/unwilling to rehome their horses before they became too far in arears.
I have several questions:
1. Has anyone else ever had a horse abandoned at their farm/boarding facility?
2. I'm curious as to how other barn owners have handled similar situations?
We have BO friends who have just simply sold the horses after a period of time, without even having a contract or anything: to us that seemed like it was crooked, so we wanted to make sure we did the "upstanding" thing and tried to be more-than-fair to the people who owned the horses. We also know of boarding facilities who just ship their abandoned horses to auction without a care as to where they end up. We didn't want to do that.
3. What sorts of ramifications did you face from the former owners of the horses?
We had a variety of situations (between the 5 horses there were 4 owners), 2 awful ones, and 2 non-ideal but manageable ones. The details are below.
4. What is the most amicable solution you may have encountered regarding this sort of situation?
Here is a synopsis of our situations:
After over a year of non-payment on 3 of the horses (and over a year and half of no attention to the horses by the owners), we had to pursue the Michigan Agister's Lien foreclosure process for 3 of the horses, one beautiful little Arabian, and two gorgeous Saddlebreds. The former owners of these horses had each not only failed to pay board on their horses for over a year, they didn't visit for several months prior to that. During the first few months of missed payment they were told "Please come pay what you can and move your horses to a location you can afford." Nothing useful happened: we were given empty promises to pay every couple of months. Then they all of a sudden made themselves unavailable (changed phone number, did not respond to mail, etc). As you can imagine, the horses health needs were not taken care of: these horses went a year without wormer, shots, coggins, and farrier services. We never saw any ads that indicated they were trying to rehome their horses, so what their thought process on abandoning their horses was seems to only have been either "I don't want to deal with it, I will just wash my hands of my horses" or "I will get them back somehow".
Boarding Contract: Our contract specified that owners were responsible for keeping horses utd on shots/coggins/farrier/worming, our job was to feed the horses and turn them in/out daily. To pursue these services on our own without consent from the legal owners meant that we would likely be stuck with the fees and potential legal ramifications if the horses had a reaction to shots or wormer, or the farrier trimmed the horses too short. We essentially had our hands tied.
Eventually, we pursued the legal services of a very reputable equine attorney who walked us through the lien foreclosure process, and we sent notices to the former owners: one notice regular mail and one certified. The owner of the saddlebreds managed to keep the "regular" mail notice, but refused the certified mail notice. The owner of the Arabian accepted both and called us, sounding like she either needed to be on drugs for her mental state or was on illegal drugs that altered her mental state. We told her "Look, obviously you are so far gone with payment that we know you can't make it up: find a place to take your horse and pay us what you can." Strangely enough, she refused to move the horse so we told her we couldn't work with her. After many midnight phone-calls from this woman in a drunken/drug induced state, we eventually had to get a restraining order.
At the lien foreclosure, only one person showed up, and we ended up bidding on the 3 lien foreclosure horses and bought them. We found homes for 2 of them, the third one we kept for a while planning to condition and sell him later. We still have the third horse, and the former owner's daughter has been a nightmare to deal with. She has posted various ads for the remaining horse "for sale" and even listed him as "stolen" online in different forums. While she seems to have backed off of those ads, she still keeps posting pictures of him (even ones that were my own photos, taken within the last year) and saying "These are my horses". The latter isn't so bad, just annoying because she knows she no longer owns the horses, but the stolen ads had us contacting our attorney and contemplating legal action (which, if it starts happening again, we will pursue). I just don't understand the thought process of these people. YOU NO LONGER OWN HORSES - WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM!?!?! You need to probably just start fresh and hope to acquire a new horse someday, when you can actually afford horse ownership How is that for a thought?
Horse owners, this is my plea to you: if you couldn't afford your horse, you should sell it or lease it out before you lose it. You should not ignore letters from the owner of the barn where you keep your horses detailing your horses needs or reminding you of barn policy. Unfortunately, your life situation doesn't excuse you from the responsibilities involved in horse ownership, if you plan to actually keep your horses. You don't get to just "drop off the planet" and then show back up like nothing has happened. Essentially, what you are doing by NOT PAYING ANYTHING is thinking it is okay to starve and ignore your horse: the exception being that you left it in someone else's care who is not willing to do that, and eventually they will likely do something to remedy their awful situation. We couldn't even exercise the horses!
The other two horses that the owners quit paying board on were eventually handed over to us to rehome as we deemed appropriate. The first horse was left without any contact or payment for over 6 months when the owner finally sent a friend out with registration paperwork and letter handing over ownership to us. The the owner dropped off of the face of the earth. We found the QH mare a new home with a man who wanted a horse for his grand-daughter. The other horse's owner tried to work off some of her board until she was forced to move out of state because of the lovely Michigan economy. She kept up with us, letting us know what was happening, and even sending us small payments to try to catch up every week.
Although the situation resulted in us owning a horse that was useless to us, we were able to maintain a decent relationship with the former owner. The horse was older with chronic lameness issues related to fetlock suspensory problems and was often unrideable. We knew the horse would be hard to sell/give away for the girl. She wrote a letter signing the horse over to us, we forgave much of the back-owed debt and we placed the horse with an awesome horse rescue where the young lady who formerly owned her is free to visit. While none of the situations were ideal on any level, at least the latest owner recognized their troubles, wanted to ensure a better life for their horse and was just an all-around honest person who fell into financial trouble - they were concerned for their horse's welfare and knew they couldn't afford the many financial demands of horse ownership. Best of all, for us, she knew we didn't want a horse we didn't choose to own and offered us the option of rehoming it as soon as she realized the situation just wasn't workable for her.
We treat our boarders like they are our family and expect nothing but the same in return. Currently we have a stable full of responsible, considerate horse owners whom we are proud to consider friends, and we are very blessed.
Ultimately, it is my understanding that people who leave horses at boarding facilities are essentially off of the hook for neglect or abandonment because they left their animals in the care of someone else (regardless of the conditions of the agreement). The only option in such a situation is either to have a boarding agreement that states something VERY SPECIFIC about what will happen in the case of non-payment, or to rely on state law. If you own a boarding facility in Michigan, please be aware that the Michigan Agister's Lien law has not been changed in over 100 years and says that "Agisters" must have the horse in their possession with non-payment for over 9 months! That is an eternity when you are stuck with a horse you didn't choose to own.
We would like to encourage any barn owners to do their best to work with people, and to contact an equine attorney when negotiations result in nothing but a headache. Just make sure you have done the best you can given your situation. I'm just curious about other situations that people have had to deal with (no names, please).
PS - I originally did not see the "law" forum, where this seems to be more applicable. I posted this also in the Horse Protection forum because these situations leave horses in state of limbo and involve a level of neglect that is not addressed by law as "neglect".