The case of the “vicious” horse

A recent court ruling in Connecticut raises important questions for horse owners everywhere.

When you hear the words “vicious animal,” you probably have a pretty clear image of what that means.

A bay horse with its ears pinned back
Even a horse we don’t see as “vicious” may be considered just that in a legal sense

Maybe you’re thinking of the urban dog who rushes his fence to snarl and bark at everyone who passes on the sidewalk. Or perhaps the grizzly bear—a species with a well-deserved reputation for fierceness—comes to mind. In either case, the animal would readily attack and injure a person with little or no provocation.

But what about the curious horse who reaches across his fence and bites a friendly visitor? That, too, can be described as an unprovoked action that causes a serious injury to a person. And, as we all know, almost any horse might nip a person under the right circumstances. Is a horse an inherently “vicious animal,” too?

Your first answer is probably, “Of course not!” However, that question went through the courts here in my home state of Connecticut, and our state’s Supreme Court answered it—with an unequivocal “Yes.”

The state legislature quickly passed a law to protect horse owners from unintended consequences of this court decision—but the case law still stands, and it could have had serious implications for horse owners in Connecticut. The repercussions could easily be felt in other states, too.

Here’s what happened.

“This horse” versus “all horses”

On May 18, 2006, Anthony Vendrella brought his then-2-year-old son to Glendale Farms in Milford, Connecticut. A third-generation family operation, Glendale Farms sells flowers, herbs and other plants to the general public. In addition to its primary business, Glendale also has a horse-boarding operation, which provides stalls and turnout as well as access to a riding ring and nearby trails.

Vendrella purchased plants in the Glendale greenhouse, then went to the parking lot and placed them in his car. The parking lot was adjacent to a paddock, which housed three horses.

It wasn’t uncommon for visitors to Glendale to stop and look at the horses, and Vendrella carried his son over to visit a horse named Scuppy. Standing within a foot of the fence, Vendrella stroked Scuppy on the head while his son watched, but when Vendrella turned his attention toward another horse, Scuppy reached out and nipped the toddler on the cheek. The bite removed a portion of flesh, and the injury required surgery and left a permanent scar.

In May 2008, Vendrella sued Timothy Astriab, owner and manager of Glendale Farms, seeking damages or alleged negligence and recklessness. Astriab had posted signs warning people not to touch or feed the horses; however, the Vendrella team claimed, these measures were not adequate to protect the general public from a dangerous animal.

The issue at the heart of the case boiled down to the nature of horses. The plaintiff argued that “a horse, by its very nature, is capable of biting someone without provocation or predisposition and that this was known to the defendants.” In other words, the plaintiff needed to prove that all horses are by their basic nature dangerous—that is, “vicious”—animals who might be inclined to bite and injure people without warning.

The defense countered that Astriab had no prior knowledge of any “vicious disposition or propensities on the part of the [individual] horse” involved. In other words, Scuppy had never bitten anyone before, nor had any other horse housed on Glendale Farms in 28 years. And so it was unreasonable to expect extraordinary measures to keep this particular horse separated from the public.

The initial case was dismissed, with a summary judgment in favor of Astriab, with the statement that, “the plaintiffs have failed to show, as they must, that the defendants were on notice that Scuppy specifically, and not horses generally, had a tendency to bite people or other horses. Therefore, the defendants owed no duty to the plaintiffs.”

Vendrella appealed and won, and the case made it to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2013, which upheld the appeals court’s decision in Vendrella’s favor, stating that horses do indeed belong to a “species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious.”

Some statements made during the case, cited in the court’s official opinion released April 1, 2014, are quite chilling if you imagine them being used one day to prove that your own horse is “naturally vicious.” To support their claim, Vendrella’s team offered evidence from several experts, including an equine veterinarian, an animal control officer—and Astriab himself:

• Bradley W. Amery, DVM, submitted an affidavit that “‘undefinediting is a natural part of horses’ lives and horses can bite for many reasons.’ Because of the anatomy of the horse’s head, a horse cannot see what is directly in front of its nose and ‘is reliant on the sensory input from his mouth.’” He also said that “‘undefinediting is … a common form of mutual grooming’ by horses. When humans replicate this natural grooming behavior, a bite can result…. Other conduct, such as scratching the horse’s muzzle or head, petting its neck or giving verbal rewards can also result in nipping behavior that can escalate to a full bite if the person is not paying complete attention to the horse.”

• Richard George, the animal control officer who had investigated the original incident, testified that, “a horse doesn’t have to have a tendency to bite in order to bite.” He stated that he himself in the past had been bitten hard enough to break the skin by a horse who “had not been known to bite.”

• Astriab, in his own testimony, had described Scuppy as “a typical horse.” He also acknowledged, however, that “a horse, by its very nature, could harm a person who attempts to pet or feed [it], stating that ‘a horse could bite you and cause great physical damage.’” And, “When asked if Scuppy was different from other horses that would bite if a finger was put in front of him, Astriab answered, ‘[n]o.’… When asked whether ‘a person who doesn’t know Scuppy … can go up to Scuppy, put [his] hand out and the horse, being a horse, could bite that person,’ Astriab answered, ‘[y]es.’” The fact that Astriab had posted warning signs, asking people not to pet or feed the horses, was cited as evidence that he knew of the danger prior to the incident.

The language the court used—“mischievous or vicious”—was based on legal precedents, especially a 1914 case involving an injury from a domestic animal, Bischoff v. Cheney, in which an Angora cat bit a neighbor, and the caretaker was sued for “failing to restrain a cat known to be vicious.” In that case, the court concluded that, as a species, “the cat’s disposition is kindly and docile, and by nature it is one of the most tame and harmless of all domestic animals” and also that “the cat is not … naturally inclined to mischief, such as, for example, cattle, whose instinct is to rove, and whose practice is to eat and trample growing crops.” Because the plaintiff in that case could not prove the defendant had prior knowledge of the Angora’s vicious nature, the court ruled in favor of the defendant.

In considering the current case, the court cited Bischoff v. Cheney when it stated that, “this court recognized that domestic animals fall into three general categories: (1) animals that ‘have either mischievous or vicious propensities which are known by [the owner]’; (2) those that belong ‘to a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious,’ but that have no known mischievous propensities; and (3) those that neither have known mischievous propensities nor belong to a species with naturally mischievous propensities.”

The Court concluded that, “as a matter of law, the owner or keeper of a domestic animal has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the animal from causing injuries that are foreseeable because the animal belongs to a class of animals that is naturally inclined to cause such injuries.” The ruling also stated that, “it was foreseeable that Scuppy would bite the minor plaintiff causing his injury because horses, as a species, have a natural inclination to bite.”

In other words, horses belong in category two: “a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious.”

The fallout

 Words are powerful. “Inclined to do mischief” might have been a more apt description, but it was the term “vicious horse” that appeared in headlines around the world. Most Connecticut citizens seemed to think that labeling horses “vicious” was somewhat ridiculous. In short, it was widely believed, the ruling was making Connecticut look bad.

Still, I was surprised that some Connecticut residents, horse owners included, believed the ruling didn’t have much to do with them. I heard one backyard owner scoff, “Who cares? It doesn’t affect us.” Her reasoning? The court had stopped short of saying that horse owners had any more liability than they’d had in the past. Lawsuits would still be decided on a case-by-case basis.

What had changed was this: A plaintiff or injured party would no longer have to prove that an owner knew a horse had a prior history of bad behavior in order to plead a case. Instead, it would be considered common knowledge that horses were naturally inclined to bite, given the nature of their species.

But while some dismissed the impact of the case, many of us in the horse community were worried that pairing the words “vicious” and “horses” in the same sentence could only spell bad news for Connecticut horse owners.

“Please understand that if horses are determined to be ‘vicious animals,’ they would be uninsurable, and any and all uses would be affected,” wrote Frederick J. Mastele, acting president of the Connecticut Horse Council, in an open letter to the horse community. “Training and boarding stables, therapeutic riding, horse camps, petting zoos, trail riding, and other horse-related uses and activities would be impacted.”

In February 2014, Connecticut’s Governor Dannel P. Malloy took action to protect horse owners by introducing legislation to specify that horses, ponies, donkeys and mules are not “inherently dangerous.” The law states that, “In any civil action brought against the owner or keeper …, such horse, pony, donkey or mule shall not be found to belong to a species that possesses a naturally mischievous or vicious propensity.”

By most estimates, Connecticut is home to more than 50,000 horses. In a public statement, Malloy said, “Connecticut’s agriculture sector contributes $3.5 billion to our economy and accounts for about 28,000 jobs in our state. Protecting owners and handlers of domesticated horses is important to supporting this portion of our economy.”

Malloy’s law (Public Act No. 14-54: An Act Concerning the Liability of Owners and Keepers of Domesticated Horses, Ponies, Donkeys and Mules) was passed unanimously by the Connecticut State Senate (by a vote of 35 to 0) and House of Representatives (138 to 0) and signed into law in July 2014.

How this ruling may affect you and me

 What can horse owners across the nation learn from Connecticut’s “vicious horse” case?

The word “vicious” implies intent to do harm and puts horses in the same category with grizzlies—although even bears are shortchanged by the word. A predator’s natural instincts to kill are about survival, not malice. Vicious? Horses? No one who sniffles throughout Steven Spielberg’s War Horse can take that seriously.

Yet the other half of the phrase, “inclined to do mischief,” made me think of my two Haflingers. It would be tough to argue their case in court, should they ever find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Truth is, they are inclined to mischief, even if their intent is never malicious. Still, I can’t promise you that they won’t playfully nip if they thought you were having a game of face tag with them. They play with each other that way all day long. Why not you?

As a responsible horse owner I try to teach my horses that playing with people and playing with horses are two different things. I feel like I’m getting through because in the mutual grooming sessions I share with my gelding he rubs me very gently with his lips, not his teeth. But that interaction requires an awareness on my part that someone who doesn’t know horses might not possess.

And that is the point I think we all do need to take seriously: So many people in the world today do not understand horses or how to approach them safely. Consider how many times in your horse’s life he could encounter strangers without your supervision: The child who runs up to him while he’s tethered at a trailhead. The family who stops their car by the side of the road to pet the horses over the fence. The contractors you hired who wander up to your paddock on their lunch break. The teenagers who take a shortcut through the back of your pasture.

As horse owners, we tend to focus on the mistakes Anthony Vendrella made that exposed his son to danger, but how easily could you have been the one in Timothy Astriab’s shoes? How easily could an incident like this happen again? Governor Malloy’s law helped us dodge a bullet here in Connecticut, but with the next court case that happens here or anywhere else, we may not be so lucky.

What can we do about it? At a bare minimum, I believe, horse owners need to educate themselves on the liability laws in their own state, and then they need to take steps to ensure they’ve secured their fences and barns and posted appropriate warning signs. Training our horses to behave well around people is another given, along with taking reasonable precautions to keep everyone safe. And, of course, we must be vigilant.

Another thing we can do is help people learn about horses. Whenever I’m at parties or social events, I’m almost always introduced not as a writer but as someone who “owns horses.” In the mostly urbanized landscape of my home state, owning horses is a lot more fascinating. Anyone can write. But, keeping horses at home? Now that’s something.

“This is my friend Karen,” the host will say. “She keeps horses.”

This always sparks a lot of questions: “How many do you have? Do you ride? Are they friendly?” This last question inevitably leads to, “I love horses, but I’m a little afraid of them. I like them more when they’re on the other side of the fence.”

I understand that fear, I tell them. Horses are big and can be intimidating. Sometimes they give you a bump with their nose and you don’t know what to do about it. So, I explain things from the horse’s point of view. Why a horse might nudge you. I make an effort to teach others what it’s like to spend your life as a prey animal. I figure the more they know, the safer we’ll all be.

Which brings me to my last point. Most of all, we need to have some compassion for the victims. As a horse owner, it’s easy to get on the defensive and rally behind Scuppy. But as a parent, my heart aches for Vendrella and what happened on that day in 2006. He had no reason to think that these placid, thoroughly domesticated animals could be dangerous. He simply saw some beautiful horses grazing behind a fence and wanted his young son to see them. Think of how quickly his day fell apart. Think of how you’d respond if a strange animal injured your child.

In light of the “big story,” it’s easy to lose sight of that dad and his little boy. He suffered a terrible injury, and I can’t help but wonder how we can move beyond finding someone to blame. I want to know how we can prevent it from ever happening again.

This article appeared in EQUUS issue #448,




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