They say that the path to every championship could be solidly paved with the shoes of injured horses who might otherwise have been there. After a court case judgment last week, we're reminded that it is also paved with the broken hearts of equestrians and the discretionary rights of horse owners.
When it comes to horse health and court cases, the subject is usually pre-purchase exams. Who could forget when Europe's most promising dressage horse, the mare Poetin, was sold for a huge price, only to arrive at her new home with crippling laminitis. Her case took seven years to settle, although she died within months of the sale. Her new owner failed to prove that the seller was aware that the mare had laminitis.
Following the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games ("WEG"), many eventing journalists felt like court reporters as we followed the legal fates to two successful international event horses that were abruptly taken from their riders. World Champion Michael Jung of Germany and his superstar "Sam" were separated and then reunited following legal action with the horse's owner and sponsor.
Closer to home, Team Australia's Peter Atkins, who lives and trains in the United States, made a YouTube star out of his horse Henry Jota Hampton (a.k.a. "Henny") after the "Run, Henny, Run!" helmet cam video of their WEG cross-country ride went viral. Part of the fun was hearing Peter shouting to his horse, and watching "Henny's" ears talk back to him.
But a month after WEG, Henny was taken from Atkins' barn in Vermont and was reportedly for sale by the owner. All this, after Atkins developed the horse into a world-class competitor, not to mention a family member. Six months of legal action and social media publicity followed, until Atkins finally was able to buy out the owner and bring the horse home.
In the meantime, we learned a lot about partnerships and rider-owner entanglements. And contracts. There has to be a contract, and you have to follow it, even if it doesn't always say what you want it to say.
Fast forward to 2013 and shift the map from Vermont to Wisconsin, where a rider is still heartbroken over the horse she won't be riding this winter on the Florida circuit. Amy Hunter lost her appeal in a Wisconsin Court of Appeals last week over her loss of the Irish draught stallion Cradilo.
Amy was interviewed by The Jurga Report and also gave an in-depth account of her side of her case to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which published the story on Friday. For details of the case, and to understand its complexity, please click on this link.
Amy and Cradilo's story reads like a Hollywood fairytale script...until it turns tragic. The imported stud had been injured and retired from dressage competition when Amy took him home under a "free lease" arrangement for rehabilitation and breeding management. She wasn't planning on competing him, but after his health problems resolved, "He told me he wanted a job," she told The Jurga Report after the court decision.
And what a job he did. Cradilo took to the jump ring, in spite of his unorthodox size. His unique style over fences made him a crowd favorite with midwest and Ocala HITS fans. And he won, while also siring foals from Amy's mares who would turn out to be successful, too. Along the way, Amy and Cradilo were a demonstration team for the Irish Village at the World Equestrian Games. "He practically had his own fan club," Amy recalled. "Everyone loved him."
But Amy's lack of a clear contract that spelled out the what-if's and the then-what's meant that the owners could and did reclaim what had become a very valuable horse, thanks to her work. Amy's lawyer claimed foul, and they eventually went to court, where Amy would lose. She appealed, and lost again.
Appraiser, judge and horse insurer Steven Wall testified that Cradilo's value as a stud horse had increased from about $40,000-50,000 in 2006 when Amy took him home to "a conservative estimate of $750,000 in 2011, due not only to Cradilo's own subsequent success on the Grand Prix circuit, but also the success of some of his young progeny," according to the court-supplied document.
But that didn't matter on judgment day; the court ruled in the owners' favor. The horse is gone, although Amy has some young horses sired by him. But he was Amy's dream horse, that one horse that riders know will put them in the spotlight. And he did, for a short time.
As broken as Amy's heart is, she will always have those memories, which is about all the court says she can legally claim.
It's very tempting to take on an injured horse and bring him back, whether it's a racehorse or a sport horse. Most will never make it back and those that do will have required expensive vet, farrier and/or therapist bills.
Often, owners are tempted to give up on their horses when the bills mount up, or the care responsibility becomes too demanding, or the horse's performance is too disappointing. But when it comes to the absence of an actual bill of sale or a legally-binding lease, most good-hearted rehabilitators can find themselves defenseless in a court of law when and if the owner decides that the horse should be in his or her stable again or if the lease expires.
The decision to part with a horse is often made in an emotional moment, with a veterinary surgery estimate in hand, and a deposit due. Calling a lawyer and drawing up a contract is not on the to-do list, but it should be.
Horsewomen always joke that if you had two children, you'd be best served to send one to vet school and one to farrier school. But maybe law school should be higher on the list.
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