Equine inherent risk law is the legal principle that people generally assume the natural risks associated with horseback riding since horses are innately dangerous animals. But horse owners can still be liable for injuries their horses cause if the owners acted with gross negligence, recklessness, or intention.
Filing an equine liability lawsuit against the owner of a horse who caused your injuries may be the proper remedy to compensate you for your injuries. You can obtain financial compensation in the form of:
- Medical bills,
- Loss of income,
- Loss of consortium,
- Costs of rehabilitation and physical therapy,
- Pain & suffering.
Below, our California personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about equine liability laws and the injuries you may have suffered:
- 1. What kinds of injuries do horses cause?
- 2. Who can I sue if I was injured by a horse?
- 3. Are horses considered “inherently dangerous” under California law?
- 4. What are liability waivers?
Horses are incredibly powerful animals, and because of this, they can cause serious injury. These injuries often occur simply because of the mood or attitude of the horse, the unpredictability of an equine, or dangerous conditions, such as a problem with the ground on which the ride is happening.
Due to the inherent risk of equine activity, common injuries associated with horseback riding include:
- Neck and spinal cord injuries,
- Injuries to the face,
- Concussions, traumatic brain injury, and other head injuries,
- Eye injuries,
- Broken and fractured bones,
- Muscle bruising damage,
- Nerve damage, and
- Death of a participant.1
Depending on the facts of the case, a person injured by a horse can file a personal injury lawsuit if the injury was another person’s fault or negligence. While certain defenses exist, those people who may be sued for injuries include:
- Horse owner: Owners of these animals are required to exercise reasonable care in preventing harm caused by their horse. Failure to protect people from harm may result in liability and money damages.
- Owner of the property: If a person is riding while on another person’s property and is injured because of that property, the property owner may be liable to whoever is injured.
- Trainer: In certain situations, trainers of horses or other equine professionals may be held liable if their wrongful actions caused injury to a horseback rider. Trainers should pair the right horse with the right rider based on the ability of the participant.
- Riding Club or Stable: If the injury occurred because of a horse owned by a riding club, or boarded by a stable, negligence of those parties may result in money damages from a personal injury lawsuit. These properties commonly include clubhouses, pony ride strings, and other equine facilities. These facilities may be responsible for maintaining safe subsurface conditions and eliminating unfamiliar objects that could cause horses to make sudden movements and cause collisions.
- Equine activity sponsors (“equine sponsors”) of horse related activities, including horse shows / equine shows / jumper shows, riding programs, equine training, pony clubs, grand prix jumping, hunt clubs, endurance trail riding, steeplechasing, 4-h clubs, dressage, and parades.
If you have been injured by a horse, an experienced attorney such as those at the Shouse Law Group can help you identify what your claim should be and who you should sue.
California courts have held that horses are “inherently dangerous” animals.2 The courts have held that certain risks of riding a horse are “inherent,” or to be expected.” Inherent risks of equine activities include such things as:
- Being thrown by the horse,
- Being bitten,
- Being kicked or stomped, or
- Falling from the saddle. 3
These risks mean that California courts will presume that horseback riders generally assume the risk associated with this activity in most circumstances.
The assumption of the risk doctrine holds that because an equestrian knows of the risks and warning signs, and chooses to ride anyway, then the duty of care of the horse’s owner or boarder is canceled. This doctrine occurs in two situations:
- Primary assumption of the risk, and
- Express assumption of the risk.
Express assumption of the risk occurs when someone requires the rider to sign a form which releases that person from liability. Also called a liability waiver, signing this document signs away certain rights. Liability waivers are discussed in more detail below. 4
It occurs when a rider is injured while choosing to ride a horse despite knowing the general risks involved in the activity. A defendant, (the person who gets sued), does not have a duty to protect a rider from risks that are naturally a part of horseback riding. This assumption is built into the fabric of California law, but there are exceptions.
Just because riding a horse is considered inherently dangerous does not mean that in all cases an injury from a horse prevents money damages in a case. There are certain exceptions to the doctrine which can hold a person liable:
- Gross Negligence: Gross negligence is an extreme departure from what an ordinary and reasonable person would do in the same situation. It is more than ordinary negligence, and the at-fault party did not make sufficient prudent effort to keep the victim safe. This is important because generally, the assumption of the risk doctrine will disqualify ordinary negligence from a personal injury lawsuit.
- Reckless Actions: A person acts recklessly when that person knows that it is highly likely that his or her conduct will cause harm, and the person knowingly ignores that risk in wanton disregard.
- Intentional Actions: If a person means to cause injury when he or she commits some act which causes injury to another person, he or she is not protected by the assumption of the risk doctrine.
Knowing whether one of these exceptions applies can be a complex legal question best suited for a conversation with your attorney.
Liability waivers are a form of express assumption of the risk. They are written agreements – like a written contract – under which the person who wishes to ride a horse agrees that it will not hold certain people responsible for any injuries which may result from horseback riding.
46 of the 50 states have enacted equine laws regarding activity liability. These acts cover horse activities and injuries which come as a possible result of them. California is not one of these states with an EALA (equine activity liability act / equine activity statute). (Neither are Maryland, New York, or Nevada.)
As a result, the assumption of the risk doctrine is applied to personal injury cases dealing with horse-related injuries. Because of this rule, owners of horses who allow others to ride them often require a signed liability waiver.
Liability waivers provide a strong defense against a personal injury lawsuit. Typical release forms include language that holds a person not liable for injuries which occur as a result of horseback riding, including the negligence of owners, their employees, the property, or even the horse itself. In short, the venue is not responsible for the safety of the participant in many cases.
While a liability waiver cannot prevent the filing of a lawsuit, they very often lead to very limited damages or outright dismissal of a case. They also serve as a deterrent against filing the lawsuit in the first place.
Not all liability waivers are enforceable, which means that a California court may decide that the waiver is not valid. To be enforceable, liability waivers must:
- Thoroughly inform of the risks: General statements such as “riding horses is dangerous” are not enough; the waiver should be a warning notice and spell out more specific dangerous latent conditions within the document.
- Comply with all California laws: California law has certain requirements associated with valid and binding agreement or contracts which must be followed.
- Signatures of the proper parties: The agreement should list the parties whose liability is being released, and those parties must sign the document. The waiver should also list the person giving away their rights, such as the rider. A person can only give away their own rights, so only the person who signed is likely covered by a waiver. The exception is for children, who cannot sign themselves but must have a parent or legal guardian sign the waiver for them.
If the liability waiver is defective in some way, making it not enforceable, the court will not hold the parties to the agreement. However, the court will still likely consider a primary assumption of the risk argument when looking at any personal injury case.
- NCBI. Non‐fatal horse related injuries treated in emergency departments in the United States, 2001–2003.
- See Guido v. Koopman (1991) 1 Cal. App.4th 837, 842.
- Culture of Safety. Horseback Riding Safety.
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 408 on Primary Assumption of Risk. Some states with horse liability statutes include Wyoming, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, and Michigan. See also: Galardi v. Sea Horse Riding Club, (Cal. Ct. App. 1993) 20 Cal. Rptr. 2d 270; Kangas v. Perry, (2000) 620 N.W.2d 429; Russell v. Downing (N.H. 1974) 330 A.2d 454; Amburgey v. Sauder, (1999) 605 N.W.2d 84; Gibson v. Donahue, (2002) 772 N.E.2d 646.