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.

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Comments (5) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Houston-area stable owner - April 15, 2010 9:33 PM

I have a similar situation where a horse owner hasn't paid her boarding fees; what are my legal rights to get rid of the horse (because it's costing money and is a liability) and reover my expenses?

Alison Rowe - April 16, 2010 9:33 AM

Thanks for your comment. If the charges are over 60 days past due, you can assert a lien on the horse under Section 70.003 of the Texas Property Code and initiate the lien-foreclosure process provided in Section 70.005 of the Texas Property Code. See my blog entry dated February 18, 2008 ("How to Enforce Texas Stable Keeper's Lien") for instructions and forms.

Rachel McCart - April 19, 2010 10:56 AM

Non-paying boarders seem to be practically an epidemic right now. We used to receive a few calls a month about this issue and now we receive a few calls a DAY, from all over the country.
I predict that as the economy improves, some of those non-paying boarders will suddenly remember their horses and check in on them, only to find that the boarding stable has sold or given away the horse without following the statutory lien foreclosure process. It is a sad state of affairs, but the boarder will then most likely have a legal claim for conversion against the boarding stable.

Alison Rowe - April 19, 2010 11:20 AM

Thanks for your comment, Rachel. It is very important that a boarding facility 1) get each boarder to sign a written boarding agreement; 2) send bills to each boarder at least monthly; and 3) precisely follow the statutory lien notice and foreclosure procedures before selling a debtor's horse.
These three things greatly diminish a boarding facility's potential liability on a conversion claim brought by the debtor.
Boarders need to keep in mind that the worst thing they can do is ignore the debt they owe. In many cases, a compromise can be reached. Boarding facilities are usually not happy if they have to keep or sell a debtor's horse. All they want is assurance that their bill will be paid.

Lynne - October 25, 2012 4:50 PM

My personal rule #1 is to not waste any time when a boarder goes delinquent. Act immediately after your grace period. If you let them get too far behind you are pretty much guaranteed to not ever get paid the back board, and oftentimes will be "gifted" with the (usually worthless) horse by the boarder. This has happened to me twice in recent years. Therefore I will not allow any boarder to get seriously delinquent and had to get firm with my slowest paying boarder. She would ignore my phone calls as a way of not dealing with the issue. I solved this by leaving a message that if I did not hear from her by X date, I would have the animal picked up by animal control. I have had to do that twice, but she no longer pulls that stunt.
Given how long it takes in most states to abide by their stablemen's laws, and the relative non-value of pleasure horses these days, it seems that you are usually better off getting the horse off your property asap by other (legal) means unless you can afford to care for other people's horses for free for months.

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