Invariably, owners engage trainers without written agreements of any kind. More often than not, multiple owners purchase a horse without any paperwork whatsoever outlining their respective rights and responsibilities.
The lack of a black and white agreement is also quite present when a horse is privately sold or gifted. Often, the purchaser simply takes possession of the halter and leads his new acquisition away. This is especially true with a Standardbred that no longer competes or breeds. Not even registration papers are transferred, simply because papers aren’t needed by the purchaser.
A bill of sale is not typically characterized as an agreement. It simply memorializes a transaction for tax and other purposes. Besides stating sales price, usually there will also be some representation made by the seller as to her having good title to the item sold, meaning that she is the true owner and that no one else has an interest (lien) on the article transacted. Some folks who sell a horse simply download a form from the internet and fill in the blanks. While something is usually better than nothing, very often the document is insufficient to meet the parties’ expectations regarding the horse’s future.
The inadequacy of bill of sale language sets the scene for a case presently pending in a Maine courtroom involving a 20-year-old Standardbred named Knotty.
For 11 years, Knotty was the beloved backyard companion of the daughter of Jayne and Daniel Buck Soules. Once the gal matured and left for college, the Souleses realized that their respective work arrangements left little time for horse care. In April 2013, in the best interest of the old campaigner, the Souleses gifted Knotty to Lisa Bosse, a horse rescuer with a farm about one mile from their residence.
A bill of sale executed at the time of the transaction contained the following language,”Seller has right of first refusal to take horse back.” In legal parlance, a first refusal right means that when an item, typically real estate, is offered for sale, the transaction cannot be consummated until the holder of the right is notified and either waives the right or offers to match the price. If the price is matched, the holder of the right gets to purchase the item, and the Seller’s prospective purchaser is out of luck.
The problem with Knotty arose after Bosse spent several thousands of dollars in caring for Knotty’s needs over the summer. Based upon the advice of two veterinarians, Bosse determined that while Knotty is in good condition for his age, he possessed too many chronic conditions to permit him to persevere during the winter months. Her attorney, David Van Dyke, related that Ms. Bosse has to literally lift Knotty every morning to make the horse stand. One veterinary report attributed this to a neurological condition that could make Knotty prone to fall; an event that would assuredly prove catastrophic for an advanced age equine, not to mention anyone around him at the time. Thus, Bosse expressed her intention to euthanize Knotty before winter set in at Maine.
The Souleses contend that Knotty is not as sick as Bosse perceives, and offered that the horse has nothing more serious than a treatable case of Lyme disease. After apparently some contentious bickering, the Souleses went to court seeking an order preventing Bosse from putting the horse down.
The judge recognizes that both parties care much about Knotty, if not about each other. In what was described by the Souleses’ attorney, Curtis Weber, as a negotiated settlement, the judge issued a temporary injunction preventing Bosse from selling or putting Knotty down. A condition of the judge’s order is that the Souleses pay for the services of Thomas Judd, a well-respected veterinarian, to assess and report on Knotty’s condition at a December 5 court hearing. Hopefully, a settlement will occur before then, and both sides will jointly agree on what is best for Knotty at this time.
How did the Souleses have standing to sue for the return of a horse they gave away? Clearly, the hazy right of refusal language in the bill of sale gave the Souleses at least a straight-faced argument that got them through the door of the courthouse. Still, while the language would infer that Bosse couldn’t offer to sell Knotty without offering the horse to the Souleses for the same price first, clearly Bosse doesn’t intend to sell the horse. If the next intended owner of Knotty is the Supreme Being, does the language in the bill of sale truly give the Souleses any rights at all in that circumstance?
No agreement; ambiguous language in a sales slip… it’s everything except surprising.
If the Souleses truly wanted the horse back if Bosse no longer wanted to care for Knotty for any reason, they could have said it clearly. If Bosse wanted the right to do with Knotty whatever she wished, she could have rejected the language in the bill of sale, or simply refused to take Knotty. Courts respect the clearly stated intentions of parties; they’re not in the business of guessing what folks meant when they used unclear language.
Preventative dentistry (brushing, flossing, checkups) is much more palatable than root canal. In the same way, thinking things out and detailing agreements before a transaction occurs is prudent, unless you enjoy paying lawyers and court costs.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.