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.
 

 

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.