Can You Keep or Sell Stray Horses That Wander Onto Your Property If the Owner Doesn't Show Up to Claim Them?

 

A man from Texas called our office who recently had 4 horses wander onto his property over the course of several days. He placed them in a pasture with his other horses and waited to hear if anyone was looking for them. The man is interested in keeping the horses and wants to know how long he has to wait until the horses are considered legally abandoned and he can claim them as his own?

Finding stray livestock in Texas is not a case of “finders keepers, losers weepers”. The law of livestock estrays, found in Chapter 142 of the Texas Agriculture Code, as well as the livestock estray laws particular to each county in Texas apply here. This law requires people who find stray livestock to notify the sheriff immediately about the discovery of the livestock. Once the sheriff’s department is notified of the presence of the stray horses, they will attempt to find the owner and/or impound the horses. If the sheriff cannot find the owner, they will, at the landowner’s request, impound the horse and eventually auction them off if the owner does not claim them within 18 days after impoundment.

Someone who finds stray horses on their property should::

1) Notify the sheriff about the stray horses (with detailed descriptions) in writing, via fax, or some other way that provides proof that you sent notice. The sheriff must be notified within five days of discovery of the animals if you later wish to seek compensation for your costs of caring for the animals.

2) Ask the sheriff where you can find a copy of your county-specific livestock estray laws, if any;

3) Keep detailed records and receipts of everything you spend on the horses. If the owner returns to claim the horses, or the sheriff auctions off the horses, you are entitled to receive reimbursement for costs related to the care of the animal; and

4) If you wish to own the horses, you should keep in touch with the sheriff to find out when and where the sheriff’s sale will occur. You can bid on the horses there.

Note: If the sheriff locates the owner or if the owner returns to claim the horses and there is a disagreement over the amount owed for their care, the landowner may file a petition under the Section 142.007 of the Texas Agriculture Code in the justice of the peace court in their county and have the matter settled in justice court.
 

 

New York City Council Passes Regulations Affecting Carriage Industry

In 2008, I posted Should the Carriage Ride Industry in New York City be Banned? after discussing the topic casually with my brother-in-law, Adam Rowe.  The post prompted a lively discussion from both sides. Some of the comments the post received were of such a "heated" nature that I could not publish them.  This is undoubtedly an issue about which both sides are extremely passionate.

Last week, the Huffington Post reported that New York's City Council has passed new regulations requiring carriage horses to have larger stalls, five weeks off per year, and blankets in cold and wet weather. Safety requirements for the carriages are also included in the new rules, requiring carriages to have manure-catching devices, emergency brakes, and reflective signs.

According to the Huffington Post report, Mayor Bloomberg supports the bill and is expected to sign it.

These new rules may act as a compromise for animal welfare advocates, who have campaigned for years to shut down the Central Park carriage industry.

Advocates of the carriage ride industry have argued that the horses are treated well, and that the horses will be abandoned or sent out of the country to be slaughtered if the industry is shut down.

The new rules are expected to increase the cost of carriage rides from $34 for the first half-hour to $50 for the first 20 minutes.

I welcome you to share your thoughts on the new rules and how they might affect the well-being of the carriage horses.

Horse-Related Partnership Disputes

A lot of horse owners call in complaining of disputes with their partner in a horse.  Most disputes arise when a partner quits paying his or her share of the expenses on the horse, or when one partner wants to sell the horse and the other does not. Most predicaments arise when there is no written partnership agreement concerning the partners' rights and duties with respect to the horse.

I advise all of my clients who co-own a horse with another party to put their agreement in writing.  The agreement should include:

  • the partners' respective rights and responsibilities,
  • designate who is allowed to take possession of the horse and when,
  • a provision about what happens when one partner stops paying her share of the expenses,
  • who gets to decide the horse will be sold, and
  • how sales proceeds will be allocated between the partners.

Absent a written agreement, multiple owners of one horse will likely be viewed as a "general partnership" from a legal perspective if the parties intended to make a profit on the horse and share in the profit and expenses.  The rules governing all partnerships in Texas (including those with no written partnership agreement) are found in Chapter 152 of the Texas Business Organizations Code.

In order for a Texas partnership to sell 100% of a horse, the "majority-in-interest" must agree if the sale is in the "ordinary course of business," and all partners must agree if the sale is "outside the ordinary course of business."  Tex. Bus. Org. Code Sect. 152.209.  In the case of 50/50 owners, this default rule can result in a stalemate if the partners disagree on a horse sales transaction.  This highlights the necessity of a written partnership agreement.

In the case of a complete stalemate, a partner can bring a lawsuit against another partner under the Remedies Section (152.211) of the Texas Business Organizations Code for breach of fiduciary duty to the partnership (refusal to enter into a sales transaction to the detriment of the partnership) or breach of the partnership agreement (failure to pay their share of expenses).  A partner can also ask the court to dissolve the partnership and order the assets of the partnership sold or distributed to the partners.

In some cases, one partner will buy a horse with his/her own money before the commencement of a partnership relationship.  Later, the original owner might add partners by having them pay the original owner some portion of the purchase price and/or agree to pay a percentage of the expenses related to the horse.   In those cases, the bill of sale and registration papers will initially be in the name of the partner who originally bought the horse.  

It is important to note that horses acquired in the name of a partner will be presumed to be property of that partner, regardless of whether the property is used for partnership purposes, if the instrument transferring title to the horse (the bill of sale) does not indicate the owner's capacity as partner or the existence of the partnership, and if the horse is not acquired with partnership funds.  Tex. Bus. Org. Code Sec. 152.102(c).

The legal presumption cited above causes many problems in an unwritten partnership scenario.  If a horse is intended to be partnership property, partners should create a new bill of sale transferring the horse from the original owner to the partnership or the names of all partners, and transfer the horse's registration papers (if any) to the partnership. 

Partnership lawsuits are notoriously messy...especially when there is no written agreement.  Be very wary of entering into any kind of partnership on a horse unless you have an agreement in writing and you completely trust the other person.  Also be aware that if your partner is in possession of the horse, your partner may deny you access to it or even sell it and pocket the proceeds in the event of a dispute.  

Is a Horse Legally Abandoned If its Owner Doesn't Ask About it for Four Years?

A horse owner in Texas recently called our office and said she allowed her neighbor to graze his horse on her property for free because she was concerned that he wasn’t taking care of it. After little or no contact with the neighbor for four years, the neighbor has demanded the horse back so that he can sell her. Can the caller now keep the horse because her neighbor “abandoned” it?

The law does not operate to give the caretaker title to the horse just because the owner did not ask about the horse for four years. The owner will need to go through the court system to get title.

The caller’s case is not a clear case of abandonment because the owner is now claiming title and demanding possession.  Courts typically will not consider a horse to be abandoned unless the owner expressly disregards his ownership of the horse and fails to claim the horse even after he is put on notice that someone else wishes to claim title to it.

In order for the caretaker to get title to the horse, she can file a lawsuit against the horse’s owner claiming a lien on the horse for unpaid costs of care and damages under the theory of unjust enrichment (quantum meruit), and ask the court for a temporary restraining order/injunction to prevent the sale until final disposition at trial. If the court grants the caretaker the right to sell the horse in a lien sale to recoup her costs, the caretaker could run the horse through a public horse sale and bid on it. If she is the highest bidder, she will obtain title to the horse. If someone else buys the horse in the lien sale, the caretaker can use the sales proceeds to recoup the costs she incurred caring for the horse.

Filing a lawsuit in these types of cases is usually a waste of money, unless the horse is very valuable or the owner is wealthy.  In most cases, it is best to assume you will never get reimbursed for taking care of an “abandoned” horse. If you ever come across a loose, stray, or otherwise apparently abandoned horse, the best thing to do is call the sheriff immediately and follow their instructions.