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.